The other day a link to this article came on my Twitter feed,
An interesting study on the impact of grief on levels of inflammation, concluding:
… grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.
It isn’t new to most of us, really, that grief can have an impact on our health, as many of the people I speak with have had that experience, and I have too. It certainly is a reminder to take care of ourselves.
Here’s an update of something I wrote on this subject 3 years ago that has some suggestions you may find helpful.
CAN GRIEF MAKE YOU SICK?
Grief can make you sick, but it doesn’t mean that it will!
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 explains:
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 not all of it.
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 …
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, 4 years after Catherine’s death I had a bout of cancer. .
It looks like those of us who have survived a traumatic bereavement – or bereavements – have an uphill climb in front of us.
Taking back some control
If you’re reading this as someone who is newly bereaved, it can all sound quite discouraging. However, there are things we can do about our risks, and so, in a very small way, take back some control in our life. Here are a few suggestions.
Face and work with your grief
Although it’s painful, and those around us do not always understand what we’re doing, it’s healthier to face our grief than hide from it. Suppressed grief can damage us more than dealing with it.
“Working with 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 when you’re bereaved.
Take care of yourself is another way of saying it. Eat, drink, exercise, get sufficient 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 the loneliness of grief can be really debilitating.
Get medical assistance if you need it
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 at your loss. Don’t avoid seeking medical attention if you need it, even if it ends up being reassurance that there is nothing seriously wrong.
Be open about your bereavement
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 what happened to your loved one, 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.
If you do need medical support, it is often a good idea to let your medical team know about your bereavement, so they can understand and support you.
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 one of my operations 3 years ago. 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. Still, if we need the treatment, then we 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.
Seek life motivation
A despondent griever who feels they have lost not only the joy of living, but the purpose of life itself, may react to news about a medical problem with a fatalistic outlook, perhaps even hoping that their life will be cut short.
If this is how you feel, seek for help, but also consider small ways to add some hope into your life. Is there a hobby you’d like to try? Is there somewhere you always wanted to visit with your loved one, and have yet had the opportunity to do? Is there a book you always to read, or a show you wanted to see? Finding small and big goals to help you through this time are so important for your well-being.
Don’t expect the worst!
Another feature of bereavement can be pessimism. Your loved one was not healed or cured or saved, and it can feel like nothing in life can ever go right again. But that is not the case. Although the stress of bereavement can exacerbate existing health conditions or create new problems, it doesn’t mean that it will.
Be kind to yourself.
Take care of yourself.
Live one day at a time.
Find things to look forward to.
And the future might be better than you now expect.