Recently I got an email from a woman who had lost her son a few years ago. She openly shared how much she had aged fast since her son’s passing. She listed a couple of her most urgent ailments and I quickly realized the process of grieving was taking its toll on her health. As I continued to read, my heart sunk.
First off, she is younger than I am, and I’m nowhere near ready to admit that I’m old. Secondly, her ailments were symptoms of secondary losses to grief, not aging. She was slowly killing herself and she had no idea it was her grief that was poisoning her.
The Grieving Process vs the Aging Process
What really hit me hard were the conditions she was concerned with were ailments of a lack of self-care – not age. After 20+ years in the health and wellness industry and teaching a college level course on Exercise and the Older Adult, I’m well versed on what happens to our bodies physiologically when we age and how our health changes as a result.
Sadly, her conditions were not aging; they were conditions resulting from years of living with grief without self-care. Her lifestyle and a lack of self-care during the process of grieving were actually making her sick.
Our health as a result of our lifestyle choices are 100% in our control, while with aging we are at the mercy of Father Time’s effects on our bodies.
Grief and Health Problems
The process of grief makes you feel like you are aging faster than you did before your loss. It makes you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck — day after day. Your body aches like you have the flu. You can’t eat or you eat too much. You can’t sleep or you sleep too much. Your thyroid shuts down. You gain weight or lose it. Your adrenal glands take the brunt. You are more susceptible to colds, your immune function is weak. In short, you have no zest for life.
For almost two years after my son Brandon died, I felt like I was aging at warp speed. I was fatigued, achy, and forgetful. I gained weight, my sleep was horrible… and so was my self-care.
Once I started to focus on improving my food choices, better sleep and more exercise, things began to turn around. Not only did I feel better on the inside, I began to look more vibrant on the outside. I began to enjoy the activities I did before Brandon died. I still miss him every day, but I no longer feel like I’m wearing the heavy blanket of grief that was smothering the life out of me.
This is not just a subjective state of being after a traumatic loss. A study involving women who had been widowed was published in Psychiatric Research in 1994 stated, “This study suggests a relationship between impaired immune function and depression in women experiencing the stress of bereavement.”
Another study from 2012 published in the Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience suggests that grief is associated with changes in cortisol levels, altered sleep,and changes in heart rate and blood pressure, especially in the early months following loss.
Changes in health as a result of grief can include fatigue, weight gain/loss, sleeplessness or sleeping too much, headaches, joint pain, memory loss, increase in blood pressure.
Grief, bereavement, loss, all require that you increase and/or improve the level of self care you give yourselves. If you don’t take care of your health you risk, not just the continued grief for the person you’ve lost, but the secondary grief of loss of health and quality of life.
Focus On What You Can Control
Grief is a condition that requires you to care for your health in the same way you would any other long term health condition. Abusing your health by self medicating with comfort foods, caffeine and alcohol increase the physical intensity of grief. There will always be birthdays, holidays and other events that reminds you of your loved one that you will have to learn to emotionally navigate.
You have 100% control over how grief manifests itself in your health, even if you don’t feel like you have control over the feelings of loss. Making self care a priority in the grieving process can be very empowering.
Healthy grief recovery is not about weight loss, before-and-after pictures, or what you look like on the outside. It’s about loving yourself from the inside out and repairing your broken heart in a way that honors the person you’ve lost.
Not taking care of your health after the loss of a loved one won’t bring your loved one back; it simply makes living without them more painful.