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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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Body and 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 with her first sexual experience with a lover.

Our first encounter with both is so powerful, so overwhelming, so eye-popping that we are sure people can tell what has happened just 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. And yet, as overwhelming as the experience is, and as transforming as it feels, we see little difference on the surface of our skin.

Grief hits with the force of a dump truck, leaving us battered 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 I felt removed from my body. Detached. My senses went numb, and my body shut down. Louise Gluck refers to her experience with grief 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 how much 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. We can taste food, smell the pine trees, and sexual feelings begin to kindle. Some widowers begin dating right away just for the comfort or diversion of sex, but this is a temporary escape. 

CS Lewis said it feels like we will always walk with a limp.


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

If you look closely, you can always see grief in our eyes.

A year after my wife died, I visited my friend Judy. Her husband had passed away three years before and we both ended up 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 more of 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.


If you are sharing your grief, I will hug you to bridge the gap so that you don’t feel alone in your sorrow. Too many people have probably kept their distance as if you had leprosy, and I want you to know that your grief does not scare me. I may touch you on the arm or hand, but cautiously, because I don’t want to stray into your personal space and make you defensive. 

The physicality of others saved me from giving in to grief.

People came to my quiet house to see how I was doing. They hugged me and touched me on the hand. Even women I barely knew. Their physical presence kept me connected to humanity. At a time when I physically felt cold and isolated by grief, people brought physical warmth and acceptance. They helped move grief out of my head and into my body where emotions could be expressed.

Grief is so incomprehensible that it ties our minds into tight Gordian knots and we no longer know how to proceed. But our body knows what we need.

Hug those who are grieving. Put a hand on their shoulder. Cry with them.

At a time when thoughts don’t make sense, when words are just words, often we just need to be held.


  1. "At a time when thoughts don’t make sense, when words are just words, often we just need to be held."

    I love that.

    I am not much for people touching me or entering my space, but I do remember being very comforted by hugs at my mother's funeral.

    1. Thank you. As for hugs, people can always ask if we'd like a hug. Then if we're not feeling that way at the moment, we can decline.