The Physicality of Grief

Hobji Feeling the Weight of Grief - Physicality of Grief

Hobji Feeling the Weight of Grief

Grief is often described as a normal emotional response to loss. The problem with this definition is that we inhabit an emotion-phobic culture.

Uncontrolled emotions are associated with being weak, unable to cope, and not being in command.

Thus the person in grief often faces the double whammy of intense emotions along with the shame of being unable to control them.

This can be especially challenging for men because, in this culture, to be a man is to be strong. Women who aspire to succeed in this world are held to the same rule.

I would like to propose a broader understanding of grief that acknowledges its physicality. It’s not just emotional. Grief is actually felt in the body and has physical consequences, e.g.,  loss of appetite, mental confusion, tightening or clenching of muscles around the heart or belly, and physical exhaustion, just to name a few.

A significant loss impacts the brain. The neural network pattern associated with a particular attachment — person, animal, object, identity, etc. is broken. It’s a little like when a computer freezes. The reality that a long held attachment is gone, simply does not compute.

Each time an event or experience brings to mind the loss, the neural firings in the brain come to a dead end.

The neural pathways that previously lead to pleasure, comfort or love now lead to an abyss. It takes time for new brain pathways to replace the old, to develop a new order.

The first order of business in navigating the physicality of grief is patience — just as one needs patience in healing a broken bone. A new physical structure is being built and this will take time.

As with a broken bone, there are actions that can reduce the suffering and support the healing. Sleep and healthy eating are essential to any bodily repair. Exercise also heads the list because in addition to boosting the immune system and filling the body with “feel good” endorphins, it provides the body with a whole array of physical stimulation that supports brain development while renewing those pathways that are still intact.

Focusing on the body can provide relief and release from grief energy that builds up in the body

I am reminded of a scene in a Jane Austin movie in which a young man aggressively chops wood because he, bound by a former commitment, is unable to express his feelings to the one he loves. His constrained emotions demanded release and chopping wood was his physical outlet.

You might want to experiment with your own physical remedies for grief. Things that stimulate the senses, like sound, music, touch, physical movement, taste, aroma and visuals all help to bring attention into the body. Being in the body takes the mind out of the flow of time—away from longing for the past and/or catastrophizing about the future. It is a temporary respite but a healthy one. It gives the nervous system a break from the emotional flood that grief can bring while supporting the physical healing of the mind.

There are times when any stimulation may be more than the brain can manage. In this case, activities that are soothing, relaxing and evoke a feeling of safety and support tend to work best. Essential oils, hot baths, massage, being held or hugged by a trusted person are possible choices. Sitting in the sun, or walking in the forest are also good.

Each of us has our own preferences for what can ease physical/emotional distress.

I invite you to explore what works best for you. Create a list of activities to rely on when unhappy or distressed. Put items, such as an essential oil or pictures of items, e.g. photo of the woods, with the list into your first aid kit for grief care. It can be an empowering action at a time when one feels quite helpless.

Feel well,




WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at


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