Every Wednesday

Every other Wednesday, I will post a reflection on grief as I continue to explore its landscape and listen to your experiences. In the sharing of our stories with each other, we find encouragement and build a community of support and understanding.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Body and Grief

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

Our encounter with grief is so powerful, so eye-popping, that we are sure people can tell what has happened by looking at us. We feel physically different, rearranged, and stand in front of a mirror to see if we can detect the changes. Yet, as overwhelming as the experience is, as transforming as it feels, we see little difference on the surface of our skin.

Louise Gluck referred to her experience with grief as being transfigured, feeling that she existed more as spirit than in her body.

When my wife died, I felt detached from my body. All my physical senses went numb. I was cold all the time. Food tasted like sawdust, and flowers had no scent. As the impact of death faded, my senses gradually returned, but it would take a long time for sensual feelings to rekindle. Unlike some widowers, I didn’t seek the comfort or diversion of sex, and I wouldn’t have any interest in dating for two years.

A number of friends have said that people thought they were back to being okay because they were smiling again, but underneath they were still being torn apart by anger, despair, and sorrow.

I also went outdoors. At a time when my mind and heart were in shock, my body knew what I needed. I hiked in the mountains of Yosemite, slept when I was tired, and ate when I was hungry. I sat by wild rivers, listened to the water cascading by, and watched the sun rise and set. Slowly I began to hear the birds singing again and see the beauty of the forest around me.

A year into grief, I visited my friend Judy. Her husband had passed away three years before, and both of us 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 the afternoon she shared her insights about grief, but all I needed to see were her eyes. They told me I would survive, I could love someone else, and I would always grieve Evelyn.

In Survivor CafĂ©, Elizabeth Rosnera daughter of Holocaust survivors, writes about discovering that she physically inherited trauma from her parents. Research in epigenetics is showing that prolonged stress and trauma cause chemical reactions in the body that can change the DNA that is passed on to offspring. Then, when the offspring experience trauma, they react in ways they can’t explain. 

If you are sharing your grief with me, I will hug you to bridge the gap so that you don’t feel physically alone in your sorrow. Too many people have kept their distance as if we had leprosy or the plague. I want you to know that grief does not scare me. 

People came to my house to see how I was doing and hugged me. At a time when words held little meaning, their physical contact let me know that I was still part of the community. Their presence helped move grief out of my head and into my body where emotions and tears could be expressed. They brought warm food to eat, wine to drink, and went walking with me around the neighborhood. 

Sometimes compassion doesn’t require words, only touch.


This post first appeared in The Grief Dialogues.

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