Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Grief and the Body


The Physicality of Grief

I hadn’t connected grief with sex, but Louise Gluck does in a poem where she compares the physical impact of losing someone close to her first sexual experience with a lover.

Our first encounter with both is so powerful that we are sure people can tell by looking at us. We feel radically different. So we stand before a mirror, or by a calm lake, to see if we can detect any signs of the change in our reflection. Yet, as overwhelming as the experience is, as transforming as it feels, we see little difference on the surface of our skin.

Grief hits us with the force of a dump truck, leaving us battered, bruised, and achy for months. Every morning when we wake up and remember that our loved one is dead, the truck runs over us again.

For a long time with grief, I physically felt removed from my body, detached. All my senses went numb, and my sexuality shut down. Gluck referred to her experience as being transfigured, feeling that she existed more as spirit than in her body.

We don’t physically change overnight because death has yanked away someone we loved. We change as we come to understand what has happened, as we physically move through grief’s landscape. We change in “waves of transformation,” as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it. In time, the direct physical effects of grief fade, and our senses return. We feel pleasures again, like the taste of food, the smell of pine trees, and we have sexual feelings. But we may feel that part of us is still missing, like an arm. Or, as CS Lewis put it, we feel that we will always walk with a limp.

How We Look To Others

Although the world looks different to us because of grief, we don’t look different to others. A number of my grief friends have commented that people thought they were doing okay because they were smiling again, while inside they were being torn apart by anger and despair.

I think grief can be seen in our eyes.

A year after my wife died, I visited my friend Judy. Her husband had died three years before and we were both widowed in our forties. She was getting remarried and I could see the excitement in her eyes, but there was also lingering sadness. Throughout that afternoon she shared her insights about grief, trying to help, but all I needed to see were her eyes. They told me what I needed to know — that I could survive, that I could love someone else, and that I would always grieve Evelyn.

One change that is physically obvious to others is that my emotions are closer to the surface and I express them — I celebrate when happy, despair when grief returns, and yell when I’m angry instead of clamming up and muttering around the house. In the past I wouldn’t have done this. I also tear up quite often, when before I rarely used to cry. With my outpouring of emotions, I was surprised that my friends still liked me. One said that he felt I was now a whole person.

The Physicality of Others

When I’m trying to help someone who is grieving, I physically feel self-conscious. I’m listening intensely, but I think that my face is unexpressive like Buster Keaton’s, and I worry that people will feel I’m not paying attention. I hope my eyes are communicating my concern.

If you are sharing something intensely personal, I want to bridge the gap so that you don’t feel alone in your sorrow, and my sitting there with my blank Keaton face isn’t helpful. Yet I feel uncertain about how to physically comfort you. A hug or a pat on the back seems generally acceptable, but touching you on the hand or arm? If you’re a friend, I’ll will, otherwise I probably won’t, unless you initiate it. I want to touch so that you don’t feel your grief has given you leprosy.

The physicality of others was important in helping me survive grief. People came to my empty house to see how I was doing and brought presence. Their voices added sounds to the stillness, and their hugs physically kept me connected to my community.


At a time when I felt cold and isolated by grief, people brought physical warmth.

            *

(I will write about widowers and sexuality later.)

2 comments:

  1. This speaks to me. When he first died, I did a lot of hiking, and I would post pix on FB. One of my friends would always say, 'oh you look so happy" or "it is so good to see you smiling". Those comments felt so offensive to me. I was smiling but I was barely standing. Her comments just felt like a way for her to feel better about my grief. I still feel like I am barely standing, to be honest. I don't know how I am even living this life. But I go to work and smile and go to my centre and smile. I can't go around just looking like a "bag pus" as my husband used to call it. I feel hollow inside. Someone like you could probably see that. But my mask works well for others.

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    1. And if someone should ask how we were doing, and we believed that they were willing to honestly listen, our smiles would fall and they would see how we were truly doing. And they would stand with us in grief. Thank you, Tricia, for your words.

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