Out of nowhere grief can hit you. At any stage and age. When you’re at your happiest or when you’re at your lowest, life can throw you a curveball. And we can grieve for so many experiences. For the loss of a marriage, the loss of identity, for health and probably the hardest – the loss of a loved one. While this is a universal experience, how we handle and process grief is unique.
Calm Amidst the Chaos
Finding your way through can be a challenge. Our body, mind and emotions get hijacked and reap havoc on our health, but learning how to deal with the physical stress reaction of grief can help reduce the pain and hurt. In this blog, I share my grief challenges and the lessons I’ve learnt.
Learning How to Grieve is a Life Skill We are Not Taught
Writing this blog series feels like it’s been years in the making. I have avoided talking about my grief and, over the past few years, I’ve felt like I have been immersed in it with the life challenges, crises and loss that have come my way. For me to talk about grief, I need to get vulnerable, open up and express some of the pain that has been a part of my journey.
What I have learned though, is the more that I do this, the more it helps myself and others. So, here I go. Taking a long exhale as I share a little bit of my journey and what you can do to learn how to grieve. From illness, parenting, divorce and most recently catching conman (a story to be told in the not too distant future), it’s been a rollercoaster.
Types of Grief We Experience
Grief can occur whenever there is a change or loss in your life. That can be a change in relationship, job, loss of a pet, financial loss, trauma, abuse, having a child and so much more. It is a natural part of life and in our modern-day lives of efficiency, disconnect and growth we often try to fast track this natural process.
The Grief of Divorce and Separation
For me, I have had a few losses in my life but one of the biggest was the loss of my marriage. While both one of the best choices and hardest things I have ever done for myself, it also came with a lot of grief. I was brought up in a religious family and the sanctity of marriage was highly valued. It took a lot of work for me to unwind the stigma of having a broken family. I had to grieve the loss of my family unit, my belief around marriage, the loss of love and the reality that my life would never be the same.
I had no idea how I would navigate this pathway, but I knew I had to be open to the pain that would come. Along the process of working through the steps, I remember having moments that floored me. Moments where I was unbearably angry. Moments where I would curl up in a ball and cry. And moments where I would smile and laugh, hopeful for the future.
It is now three years since we separated and in many ways, I am the healthiest, happiest and most grounded I have ever been. But sometimes that pain of grief can still creep up when I least expect it.
Being Overwhelmed by Grief
One of the strongest memories of grief enveloping me was when my small, tight-knit community found out that my husband and I were separating. News spreads like wildfire in my small town. I tried to put on a brave face, show up and take my kids to the local races and help out at the local school fundraiser.
But as I went to help at a BBQ, a family member who I hadn’t seen since the news broke, enveloped me in her arms and said she was so sorry to hear that my marriage had ended. I couldn’t take the pity anymore, the sadness and the grief poured out of me. I cried. And I couldn’t stop crying. I walked the longest way home so no one could see me losing it and closed myself away for the rest of the day and just cried. It was the best and healthiest thing I could do at the time.
Our Body’s Reaction to Grief
My physical reaction to grief was so strong that I felt the pain in my body, heart and head. My survival response was triggered and I felt like I had no control over it. My breathing was fast, I didn’t want to eat anything, I couldn’t sleep very well and I felt a headache coming on. I was in an acute spiral of grief. My body was flooded with adrenaline and the emotional parts of my brain were firing off signals everywhere.
Grief Through a Global Pandemic
Many of us will be feeling grief during the covid crisis, as our lives, world and the future will forever be changed. For me, it was week three of lockdown in New Zealand before I shifted out of the shock phase and the emotions started to boil over. So many unknowns, fears and things out of our control have contributed to our emotional barometer being constantly shifted.
Wherever you are in the world, you will be experiencing your unique range of emotions as your brain and body are thrown into survival mode. One minute you’re scared, the next angry, followed by sad and tearful. Sometimes hope and acceptance creep in as you work through the different stages. You can yo-yo back through the emotions and stages of grief for an undefined time and there is no right way of processing it.
When you experience knee-buckling grief, you can finally understand where the expression ‘broken-hearted’ comes from. We all have unique beliefs, values, emotional awareness and experiences that shape how we handle grief and it’s hard to know how you will react when you’re confronted with loss.
How to Describe Grief
Once, I heard grief being described as a ball. At the start, that ball can be all-consuming, huge and take over your life. As time goes by and you work through the stages of grief, the ball is still there but it gets a little bit smaller. You start to build more areas of your life back up around the ball which makes it less overwhelming. Sometimes the ball can expand quickly and trigger the grief emotions all over again when there are reminders of special moments like anniversaries or birthdays. And then it shrinks back down again.
Stages of Grief
There are many theories and ways of explaining the stages of grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is seen as the creator of the 7 stages of grief but the framework that I like was created by a British psychologist who pioneered attachment theory, John Bowlby. His four stages of grief are:
- Shock and numbness
- Yearning and searching
- Despair and disorganisation
- Reorganisation and recovery
For me, understanding these stages is helpful so that when you move between them, you can acknowledge, sit with the feelings and work your way through. Often the hardest part is acknowledging how you feel and witnessing how that impacts you. Very often you may need to have someone support you such as a friend and a family member or a professional such as a psychologist or counsellor. There are no medals given for battling through grief by yourself. Often we need someone else to nurture us, hear how we feel and guide us through the stages to find a new normal.
The Physical Effects of Grief
As a physiotherapist and breathing coach, I see the impact of grief in my clinics, workshops and on retreat with the symptoms my client’s display. Often they’ve experienced it for decades without understanding the link between their grief and the physical ailment. The hijacking of the nervous system and the emotional brain can trigger a constant cascade of stress hormones in the body, keeping it alert and ready to deal with danger.
Grief and How We Breathe
Different emotions change our breathing patterns and since grief triggers a range of emotions, our breathing pattern can get stuck and become inconsistent impacting our health long term. When we are stressed, our breathing rate increases and the rhythm and the muscles we use to breathe also change. Long term, these changes together with our posture and activation of our flight, fright and freeze muscles keep us lodged in these patterns and unable to move through the stages of grief.
Learning how to change your posture, release stress muscles and change the way you breathe can all help unravel the impacts grief has on your mind and nervous system. For those wanting a simple tool to help release tense muscles, check out my free 15-minute Stress Relieving Video below. It’s designed to unwind those overactive stress muscles, making it easier to breathe in a calm state.
Physical Signs and Symptoms of Grief
Clinically, the signs and symptoms of grief are the same as what you experience when under stress for long periods. You might find it hard to sleep, relax, eat food or you might want to eat too much, you may have an upset gut, feel fatigued (this is a big one not often talked about), have problems concentrating, have headaches, migraines, anxiety, neck and back pain just to name a few. This has a knock-on effect in the long term to our hormone balance, immune function and digestive system and can do long term damage if the trigger of grief isn’t worked through early on.
To learn more about how stress impacts the body and breathing, check out my online live workshops that teaches you simple techniques to get your body back to calm, which eventually helps reset your emotions and thoughts.
Grief and Anxiety
Anxiety can be a very common part of grief. Research into bereaved spouses found that 44% experienced an anxiety disorder within the 12 months of losing a loved one. It also found that if you have experienced anxiety in the past, there’s a risk of it reoccurring when you lose a loved one.
The anxiety spiral and panic attacks are scary to experience, but the good news is some physical drivers can be changed – like the way you breathe, learning muscle relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy, which can all help reduce the impact of anxiety and restore calm to your body and nervous system. It is about finding what is the right solution for you.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help
Talking about grief can be scary and difficult, but it can also be liberating and healing. Depending on where you live in the world there are multiple options.
New Zealand services that you may need:
- 1737 Call or text 1737 for support from a trained counsellor, available 24hrs a day, 7 days a week
- Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999
- Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Youthline 0800 376 633
- Samaritans 0800 726 666
- Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797
- Depression Helpline 0800 111 757
Control the Physical Impact of Stress to Help Deal with Grief Process
Learning how grief hijacks our stress system is one of the best ways to understand how you can unwind the impacts of it. Sometimes you will need help and getting hands-on therapy that can release muscles holding tension, gripping and not able to relax is the best medicine.
Breathe, Move and Be In Nature
Finding slivers of joy was one of the key things I learnt from my sister Sarah when she was going through breast cancer treatments. I encourage you to find the moments in your day that bring a smile to your face. It can shift your mood, your physiology and your breathing. Get out into nature, cry, breathe, move, scream, punch a pillow. Whatever you need to.
By trying things that make your body feel safe and calm you don’t undermine the grief or stop the process. You just make it a little easier to get through. Take a long exhale with me now and stop, pause and breathe.
Learning from Grief
One of the biggest lessons that grief has taught me is the only certainty is change. I have learned from these experiences great growth can occur. Part of my philosophy is looking at resetting my mindset when I’m moving through times of change and chaos. I have the power to control the way my body reacts by the way I think, my emotions and the way I move my body. Finding out the best way to get you moving through the stages of grief can take work, vulnerability and is unbelievably scary. But I promise you, it’s worth it.
I am not the same person as I was before the last major grief event in my life but in many ways, I am better. It is by no means easy to reframe grief as a positive catalyst to change, especially when you lose a loved one. However, pausing and reflecting on the lessons learned, the people that are important and your values can create a change for the better that you never would have expected.
Emma Ferris is a mum, divorcee, a survivor and so much more. Originally trained as a physiotherapist, her career has taken on a journey to understand how stress impacts the body and mind. This led her on a path to becoming a breathing coach, using tools to help unwind the physical impact that stress creates on our health and wellbeing.
You can connect with Emma online in one of her live workshops, on retreat or join her online Breathe RIght & Reduce Your Stress course now to start learning the tools to help reset the body through times of change, grief and uncertainty.