Grief is physical.
My hair looks different to me lately. Over the last few months, it has become puffier on the top – oddly, only on the top. My hair is fairly long and not thick, so the additional puffiness is noticeable, at least to me. Investigating the cause, I found I have quite a bit of fairly short hair mixed in with my longer hair. I was confused for a little while – until I remembered something, and realized what was going on.
Almost immediately after my brother died a year and a half ago, my hair started falling out. For months it fell out steadily. I became scared to wash it, because the action of shampooing would result in handfuls of hair ending up somewhere other than connected to my head. I didn’t like putting it up because I was disturbed by how many times I could twist the hairband around the thin, scrawny ponytail. (This photo is from when it was nearly as thin as it has ever been, outside of the chemo experience.)
After a year or so, the hair loss slowed. Thinking about the fact that hair generally grows about a half inch a month, I realized that much of the hair that had fallen out must have begun to grow again, and is now about 4-5 inches long, hence the strange short-and-long hair combination. I am relieved it is growing back – I wasn’t sure it was going to.
This is just one in a string of incidents and examples that are teaching me about the whole-body experience of grief.
From the moment my husband told me my brother had died I felt it in every cell, like someone had beaten me up in a dark alley, systematically battering every body part in turn, leaving me in a heap. Everything felt numb and on fire at the same time. I struggled to breathe. My vision faltered. I felt like my chest was wrapped in a metal band that was being pulled as tight as it could go without preventing me from breathing altogether.
Over the weeks that followed, I lived in a different body than I had ever known. My hormones went completely haywire. My appetite disappeared, which is unheard of with me (my typical stress response is to eat more, and junkier, and gain weight). I managed one meal a day, basically for sustenance. All I could stomach through the day was some coffee and water, and then around dinnertime food would appear thanks to some gracious friend, and I would realize that I had to eat so I could complete the important tasks I had to do and be present for the people who needed me.
I was consumed with nervous energy all summer as I went from pillar to post dealing with everything from funeral arrangements to family support to managing my regular responsibilities. I lost 20 pounds. But after I got through the memorial service at the end of August, everything changed again. I stumbled through the fall, crying every day, feeling weak and strangely unsure of my balance, like I could trip and fall anytime. Then winter came and I sank into a depressed stupor, my energy low, my immune system compromised. I ate carbs and sugar and gained back the 20 pounds. I felt as though I had been filled with molten lead that was cooling down but still moldable, heavy in my limbs and making motion a chore. I remember sitting in my office chair one day and staring at a balled-up used tissue on the floor, unable to pick it up and throw it out. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I recall seeing that piece of trash as a referendum on my competence – clearly I’m worthless, I thought, if I can’t even pick up trash from the floor.
When I think about it, the physical nature of grief makes complete sense. The heart and brain are organs, connected to every corner of our bodies through blood vessels and nerves – in fact I can’t think of an organ more integrated than those two. When trauma overwhelms the heart and brain, how can the effects not spread everywhere?
As I talk to people coping with grief, I learn more about how physical grief is. You might not have one shred of energy to do anything but lie down. You might be so anxious that you become desperate to get out and move. You may be short of breath, or susceptible to colds and illnesses, or experiencing aches and pains in seemingly random places. Your digestive system could be completely upended, with the result that you can’t eat, or can only eat certain things. You might find yourself eating all the time and gaining weight, which can have further physical consequences. Strange issues might come up with your skin, or your joints, or your back – and of course you may start losing hair.
The combination of physical effects is unique to each grieving person, and can change all the time – I’ve gone in and out of many issues and I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of all of them.
If grief is the true cause of these physical challenges, and we can’t eliminate grief, what can we do? Well, we can pay attention to what we feel and experience. We can address our particular issues with coping strategies – exercise, diet, rest, counseling, various holistic therapies, doctor’s appointments and treatments, medication, and so on – and see what helps. With what we learn, we can each create a personal collection of "grief fitness" ideas, available whenever we need it.
I consult my own inner grief fitness guide all the time, especially for one particular issue. At times following the end of my cancer treatment, and now far more often since Frank died, I experience a pain in my face that I can’t get rid of with ibuprofen. It seems to come on when I’m anxious or sad, gripping onto the front of my face mostly around my nose and mouth and cheeks. It hurts, it persists, and it robs me of focus. I’ve run through a collection of coping strategies and have found that yoga, running, walking, or talking to someone will ease it temporarily. But what really knocks it out is crying. Specifically a screaming, howling crying jag. Coming off of that I can feel relief in my face that lasts the rest of the day. As you may imagine, I can't always use that strategy – so I'm glad that my guide has other ideas to try.