Physical Symptoms of Grief

Physical Symptoms of Grief

If you’ve recently experienced the passing of a beloved family member, friend, or animal companion; you’re well aware of the power grief has over your “quality of life”. In truth, nothing is more devastating to our physical well-being and psychological/emotional equilibrium than the death of a loved one. So much so, Larry Malerba, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), argues it’s very likely “the most common ‘natural’ cause of chronic illness is unresolved grief”.

What then is “unresolved grief”? While there is no clear “timetable” for the grief experience, unresolved grief is used to describe a grief experience which takes longer than what is common for a person’s social or cultural background. In addition, Dr. Malerba tells his audience “this unprocessed grief is commonly a source of anxiety, irritability, depression, other emotional disturbances, and even mania and psychosis.”

Certainly, anyone with unresolved grief has trouble taking care of daily responsibilities, and not just because of the emotional and mental effects of bereavement (such as disorientation, and “a painful lack of capacity to initiate and maintain organized patterns of activity (Source: Maurice Lamm). Often this inability is the direct result of the discomforts of the physical effects of grief he or she is experiencing. But you’re grief doesn’t need to be unresolved to bring with it a set of physical symptoms; anyone mourning the death of a loved one can manifest them at any stage of the grieving process.

The Most Common Physical Symptoms of Grief

In the opening to The Atlantic's article "Understanding How Grief Weakens the Body", contributor Cari Romm noted the close linguistic connection between grief and illness, as found in the phrase, “sick with grief”. And today, she noted, "medical knowledge suggests that our bodies already know what our words have long implied: that grief can, quite literally, sicken”.

Sadly, when you’re in the midst of grief, it’s all too easy to discount the importance of, or ignore these symptoms altogether. But, when you consider the physicality of your grief affects the quality of your grief experience; in the long run, you really can’t afford to do so.

Ignoring your physical symptoms of grief will inevitably lengthen your bereavement considerably. Here are some of the most common physical reactions to loss, including the death of a loved one:
  • general tiredness and extreme fatigue at times
  • random pains and aches, such as headaches, rib, neck or back pain
  • an inability to sit still, restlessness
  • gastric distress, such as an ulcer, inflammation of the esophagitis, or colitis
  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • loss of appetite or it's opposite: comfort eating
  • insomnia
  • finding it hard to sleep or fear of sleeping
  • muscle weakness
  • increased blood pressure, risk of heart attack and blood clots
  • anxiety attacks
  • suppressed immune system

If you’re experiencing any of these physical symptoms of grief, it is highly recommended you see a physician for a conversation and a rigorous physical check-up.

What Factors Contribute to Our Grief Experience?

In the excellent Natural News article, "Could Grief be Causing Your Chronic Illness?"; he writes of the numerous unique factors within an individual’s process of grieving, including his or her level of “psychological maturity” as well as their level of “understanding of the nature and purpose of grief and loss.” There are other very important factors affecting the success of a person’s bereavement:

  • The amount of support given by friends, family and coworkers
  • The individual’s physical, spiritual and mental health at the time of loss
  • The existing cultural and social attitudes about death and grief

When Then, is the Work of Grief?

It’s all about cultivating “self-awareness”; checking-in with your body daily (if not two or three times a day) to assess how it’s doing, and writing down the symptoms you’re experiencing (with the date/time noted). Look for patterns, and don’t ignore them when you see them surface.

Couple this self-awareness with enhanced self-care. Of course, that means tending to your basic physical needs: eating the right food, getting enough sleep, and regular exercise (all of which can be compromised by grief). But it also means taking care of yourself on a practical level; for example, do your best to keep your house clean, your clothes laundered, and your bills paid.

Remember, You’ll be Forever Changed

Without doubt, grieving the death of a loved one is a life-changing experience. In the following passage, Ann Lamont, an American novelist, described the lingering effects of grief in physical terms in this passage, quoted widely throughout the Internet:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” (Source: Grief Speaks)

Navigating the changes can be challenging. If you need help in processing your grief, don’t hesitate to ask for help. We’re here to guide you through this difficult time; if we can be of assistance, don’t hesitate to call us.

Online Sources:

Romm, Cari, "Understanding How Grief Weakens the Body", The Atlantic, September 11, 2014
Gupta, Sanjay, "How Grief Can Make You Sick", Everyday Health, updated 3/10/15
Lamm, Maurice, "Psychological Symptoms of Grief",, accessed 2016
Malerba, Larry, "Could Grief be Causing Your Chronic Illness?", Natural News, May 12, 2011