When my son Justin died in 1993 at the age of 16, I was emotionally crippled for at least a year, unable to return to my former life in advertising or relate to people in familiar ways. Over time, I reassembled the tattered scraps of my life into a new tapestry, and I took all the time I needed to grieve well.
After 10 years, I had created a rich new life, with wonderful friends, meaningful work and a robust spiritual practice. I had met the man who would become my husband and joyfully embraced my new role as grandmother. I believed I had survived my “dark night of the soul” and was ready to move on.
But I was wrong. Out of the blue, I developed asthma. Some nights I slept in a chair to ease my labored breathing. It didn’t make sense to me because I’d never had asthma as a child, nor had anyone in my family. Then I discovered, rather dramatically*, that asthma was the messenger telling me there was still a deep layer of unacknowledged grief, bubbling to the surface, crying for attention.
It was guilt. My son had died in my own home and I wasn’t there to protect him. He suffocated while using nitrous oxide (laughing gas) with friends while I was at work. I did the necessary spiritual and emotional work to honor and release this grief and within a few months, my asthma went away, never to return. That’s when I realized what my asthma had been trying to tell me. My son had suffocated, and I couldn’t breathe.
In my work with people who’ve experienced deep loss, I’ve discovered that many people are carrying blocked grief. Society often does not allow us the time and space to grieve some of the big losses of life, and so we carry them within us, often disguised as physical or mental symptoms–heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, car accidents, an inexplicable series of misfortunes or phobias, to name a few. These conditions can be important messages that grief is fighting for attention, crying out for healing.
Here are some other common symptoms that buried grief may be asking for attention.
- Feeling inexplicably weary, weighed down or sluggish – Do you find yourself sighing a lot? Do you lack the energy to exercise or the enthusiasm to engage with life?
- Trouble sleeping – Do you have a hard time falling asleep or sleeping through the night? Do you have troubled dreams? Do you awake feeling unrested?
- Inability to make decisions or move forward with your life – Do you feel stuck? Do you have a hard time finishing projects?
- Depression – Are you sad a lot and can’t explain why? Do you have negative opinion of yourself? Have you lost interest in things that used to bring you joy?
- Anxiety – Do little things rattle you? Do you tend to dwell on what might go wrong? Do you feel fearful or restless for no apparent reason?
If you can answer yes to some of these questions, it could be a sign that you are weighed down by unresolved grief from a major loss, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, disabling illness or miscarriage. Almost everyone carries grief, whether recent or from a long time ago, and it can keep us stuck and unable to live our best life.
What to do? There are various ways of dealing with blocked grief, once you have acknowledged the problem. The first step is to identify the loss with which it’s associated. Then give it your attention; honor it and freely express your feelings about it. Take whatever time is needed to fully process your grief, until you are ready to let it go. In my book, Healing What Grieves You: Four Steps to a Peaceful Heart, I describe a step by step process for dealing with blocked grief. (www.juielangegroth.com) And be sure to consult a healthcare professional for any physical, emotional or mental symptoms that may require treatment.
Grieving is hard work. But it enables you to learn and grow from your losses and expand into a more evolved version of yourself. Doing so can leave you feeling lighter, brighter and ready to fully live a life of joy, meaning and purpose.
*A full description of how asthma led me to discover my hidden grief is contained in my book, Healing What Grieves You: Fours Steps to a Peaceful Heart. (www.julielangegroth.com)