Can grief make you sick? (research and commentary)

One doctor wrote an article: “How Grief can make you sick” 

Delving further into the subject, I found that the Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health and Coping cites research indicating the impact that bereavement can have on our physical health.

The odds of a new or worsened illness was estimated at 1.4 times the risk for the non-bereaved at 2 months post-loss

Some poor health following a difficult bereavement could be due to self-neglect. Loss of appetite, loss of motivation for exercise and activity, or turning to drink or drugs to dull the pain are part of this picture. But I don’t think it tells all. Back to the Oxford Handbook:

Research has begun to show biological links between bereavement and increased risk of physical illnesses. For example, research has examined how bereavement affects the immune system and leads to changes in the endocrine, autonomic nervous, and cardiovascular systems …

And as far as hearts in particular:

The Old English word for grief, heartsarnes, literally means soreness of the heart; heartache originates from the Old English heortece, originally used to refer to heart disease. (From Understanding how Grief Weakens the Body)

The topic of physical health problems following bereavement is explored in depth here. The main point:

Grief makes us susceptible to diseases such as the common cold sore throats and other infections. Other diseases shown to be connected to the stress of grief are ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, heart disease and cancer. The connection between the mind and body is not always recognized, but there is real scientific evidence that what we think and feel has a direct effect on our biological systems. This is an especially important issue for bereaved parents because the loss of a child is the ultimate in stress and a stress that lasts so very long.  (Your Health and grief, by Tom Gray)

If you read the entire article, you might find it rather depressing, but then again, it is unlikely to be news to you. I’m aware of other people in my circle of bereaved acquaintances that have had physical health problems after their difficult bereavement. – and personally, I’ve just discovered I have a kidney tumour (yet to find out whether it is benign or cancer. I wrote in my previous post, life continues, and it is up to us to continue living it. I am being tested on those words right now!).

It looks like those of us who have survived a traumatic bereavement – or bereavements – have an uphill climb in front of us.

So what can we do about it? I have a few thoughts about this.

  • Although it’s painful, and those around us do not always understand what we’re doing, I still think it’s healthier to face our grief than hide from it. Suppressed grief can damage us more than dealing with it. “Working through it” can mean lots of things. One of the themes of this blog is that it is okay to maintain continuing bonds with our loved ones, to commemorate their lives and deaths in the ways that suit us personally, no matter what anybody else says or thinks about it. Lighting a candle, planting a tree, visiting and taking photos of a grave, treasuring their favourite possessions, blogging, talking to them, diaries, etc., etc., etc. If you have a religious faith, let that be a support to you. There is no shame in tears.
  • “Be kind to yourself” is often the words of advice you hear. Take care of yourself is another way of saying it. Eat, drink, exercise, rest, find activities that you enjoy, take up hobbies, treat yourself.
  • Find some support. Whether a helpline, a peer support group, a counsellor, a good friend, a faith community, a pet. Try to find ways so that you don’t feel isolated, because I think the isolation of grief can be really debilitating.
  • If you don’t feel well or have other physical health symptoms, don’t automatically assume that they’re “in your head” or because you’re so sad or depressed. Don’t avoid seeking medical attention if you need it, even if it ends up being reassurance that there is nothing seriously wrong.
  • You can’t prevent everything. If and when you then discover that you are ill or have developed a condition or an existing condition has become worse, it is rather natural to relate it to your loss, but it might just as well have nothing at all to do with it. Some things happen. They just happen without an identifiable reason. Maybe it’s genetics, maybe it’s environment, maybe it’s just bad luck.
  • Losing a loved one – especially via a traumatic loss – can make you feel very out-of-control. Life has taken a turn that you did not choose and that you could not prevent. If you then find yourself needing medical attention, in some ways you’re back in that unwelcome but familiar place. I had an interesting chat with the anaesthetist before my recent operation, as they were about to give me an epidural (spinal anaesthetic). I told her about my children, kind of warning her that I might get very emotional any moment, and she remarked that quite a few people had said similar things as they waited in that little room for their anaesthetic. It seems that following a bereavement, a patient is often very emotional before surgery. It brings back memories in some cases, but perhaps it was also because putting yourself wholly into the hands of another is difficult. It is another unavoidable loss of control. But if we need the treatment, then we just need  to take a deep breath, ride the emotions as best as we can, say a prayer if we’re a praying person, and let them get on with it.
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