by Kathleen Barnes
Grief can arrive suddenly with the death of a loved one, serious illness, loss of a job, parental dementia or decaying relationship. In any case, it takes a toll. “Grief encompasses all of our thoughts and feelings. Mourning is when we put them into action by talking, crying, perhaps doing rituals,” explains Tracy Riley, a licensed clinical social worker and grief counselor in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Grief isn’t something that’s over when you wake up one day,” Riley counsels. “It’s ridiculous when an employer gives you three days off and then expects everything to be fine.”
She notes that time helps heal all wounds, but even a decade after losing a loved one, the pain can remain and life is never the same, although most of us learn to live with loss and move forward.
“Some things can’t be fixed,” concludes Megan Devine, a psychotherapist in Portland, Ore., and author of the audio book, When Everything is Not Okay, who blogs at RefugeInGrief.com. After witnessing the drowning death of her fiancé, she says, “I didn’t need to hear platitudes that everything would be OK. I needed something solid to hold onto when my whole world exploded.”
An unexpected death and any emotional shock is an extreme stressor that causes the adrenal glands to release a flood of adrenaline. Tina Erwin from La Mesa, Calif., author of The Lightworker’s Guide to Healing Grief, explains, “If you get a shock when someone close to you dies, your adrenal glands are blown out almost instantly and you are overwhelmed with adrenaline, much like we often see in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. You need to rebalance your body chemistry.”
Intense grief can sometimes show up as chest pain, a classic sign of heart attack, due to a temporary disruption of the heart’s normal pumping action from a surge in stress hormones, according to the National Institutes of Health. Yet Imperial College London scientists now have found that a recognizable “broken heart syndrome” may temporarily protect the heart from being overwhelmed with adrenaline.
“Healing the physical side of grief ultimately helps healing on an emotional level, too,” says Erwin. To assist herself following the death of her 6-year-old niece from a sudden infection, she uses several Bach flower remedies for trauma—Rescue Remedy, to rebalance the flood of adrenaline; Star of Bethlehem, for shock and loss; and Mimulus, for fear and anxiety. “Combining a few drops of each of these in a water bottle or tea several times a day helps you regain a feeling of balance,” Erwin says. She also likes drinking blood-cleansing noni juice to help wash adrenaline out of the body, and taking salt baths enhanced with lavender essential oil to literally “wash away the darkness.”
Riley views art and music therapy, plus journaling (a “personal roadmap” that helps chart her progress), as powerful healing tools. She’s also seen firsthand how animals can play a key role through the mourning process. Her miniature schnauzer intuitively approaches her clients that are anxious and grieving and gives them permission to pet him. “It puts people at ease,” she says. “Then they can talk more freely about their pain.” Numerous studies, starting in the 1980s, show that stroking a furry pet lowers blood pressure.
Charting a Personal Course
For the bereaved (literally defined as “torn apart”), the symptoms of grief are meant to slow us down, advises Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., and author of numerous related books, including Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart.
Society expects bereaved people to “carry on, keep their chins up, be glad they had him/her as long as they did or else be grateful that our loved one’s pain is over”—all platitudes that are more hurtful than helpful, says Wolfelt. Mourning takes time, but it also requires a social context, he explains. “It’s the shared response to loss. If you isolate yourself, you are grieving, not mourning. You can’t do this on your own. It’s bigger than you.”
For those that feel stuck or unable to move forward, experienced grief counselors may be able to help.
Kathleen Barnes is the author of numerous health books, including Ten Best Ways to Manage Stress. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.