Grief is disorienting, shocking, and terribly sad. Processing even an expected loss can take all you’ve got and then some. But when someone close to you dies in a tragic way – due, for instance, to a car accident, violent incident, or medical error – you need a singular set of coping skills.
After such a loss, you will be flooded with strong emotions, and your brain will go into overdrive to process the situation. For instance, most people are at least somewhat familiar with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “5 Stages of Grief,” which mark the transit from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance. In her book, On Grief and Grieving, Dr. Kübler-Ross eloquent writes: “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
We all know that losing a loved one touches our emotions in ways both profound and mysterious. But how does grief physically manifest in our bodies? And how should we cope with such changes?
Obviously, every person displays unique responses to loss. Grief reactions do not easily slot into categories. That being said, researchers have found interesting patterns. In 1944, Dr. Erich Lindemann published an influential paper called “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” in which he argued the following points:
- Acute grief is a definite syndrome with psychological and somatic symptomatology.
- This syndrome may appear immediately after a crisis; it may be delayed; it may be exaggerate or apparently absent.
- In place of typical syndrome there may appear distorted pictures, each of which represents one special aspect of the grief process.
- By appropriate techniques these distorted pictures can be successfully transformed into a normal grief reaction with resolution.”
Dr. Lindemann noted that common reactions to acute grief included symptoms like: shortness of breath, a choking feeling, physical exhaustion, the need to sigh, and abdominal and muscular pain, often coming in waves.
In the decades since, other researches have expanded on this theme and noted that shock responses to the sudden death of loved ones vary widely – from shaking or screaming to an inability to sleep, drink, eat, move or talk. In general, the initial shock symptoms subside after a few days to weeks.
Grief and Physical Pain: The Connection
Words like “pain,” “hurt” and “heartache” are often used metaphorically to describe grief, but these sensations can be quite literal. Echoing the thinking of Dr. Lindemann from over 70 years ago, the British Psychological Society notes that bereavement produces hypersensitivity to noise, flashbacks, shaking, a racing heart and a churning stomach.
But physiologically, what’s actually going on inside people who have these reactions? Frankly, the science is still immature. Pop psychology to the contrary, researchers don’t have a clear grasp on how extreme emotional shock challenges our bodies. That said, there has been intriguing research:
Role of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex
Scans conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that the anterior cingulate cortex–the portion of the brain involved in physical pain– also processes emotional pain.
Serious chest symptoms, such as heart palpitations or pain, characterize what’s known as “broken heart syndrome” (also “stress cardiomyopathy” or “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy”). According to the British Heart Foundation, these symptoms can follow significant physical or emotional stress. The heart muscle unexpectedly weakens, and one of the chambers in the heart changes shape – a transformation that affects up to 100 people per million each year.
A study at Imperial College found that the change may be a defense mechanism to protect the heart from the adrenaline surge that typically accompanies grief and shock.
Grief and the Immune System
In addition, a wrongful death may leave surviving relatives more vulnerable to infection, according to a University of Birmingham study. Researchers found that bereaved people may suffer from reduced function of neutrophils – the most abundant type of white blood cells responsible for fighting off pneumonia and other types of rapidly dividing bacteria.
What about individuals who die within a few hours of each other? Anna Phillips, a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Birmingham, explains: “People say you die of a broken heart. What we’d say is they are dying of the effect of these factors on their immune system.”
Another study found that grieving individuals produce fewer antibodies when introduced to a vaccine.
Caring for a Loved One Grieving a Sudden Death
According to Susan Hughes of The Compassionate Friends, although grieving involves a significant physical effort for the bereaved, “people don’t really know that because it’s not spoken about.”
If you recently lost a friend or family member, get support. Make sure you:
- Meet your basic needs. Eat, stay hydrated (limit alcohol), keep warm, secure safe housing and get sufficient sleep.
- Minimize chances for harm. Being in shock makes you less aware of your surroundings. Have someone else do tasks like cooking and driving.
- Clarify what has happened. Depending on the severity of the shock, it might be necessary to go over the facts several times.
- Cover your responsibilities. These could include work obligations; caretaking commitments; pet care; etc. Delegate work that can be delegated, and otherwise reduce your load as much as possible.
- Get care for pre-existing health conditions. Complications such as drug or alcohol addictions, depression or other chronic illnesses, history of family breakdowns or domestic violence may require special attention.
- Participate in events and procedures relating to the death. If possible, stay involved in critical decisions related to the funeral and estate planning.
- Solicit appropriate support. Especially if you experience severe symptoms, such as heart problems, or if you’re older, sick, or immune-compromised, strongly consider booking an appointment with your doctor at your earliest convenience. In addition, talk to a qualified grief counselor to begin to process the challenging emotions. Finally, if you believe someone else caused or contributed to the death – a drunken driver, a careless surgeon, an incompetent workplace foreman – speak with an experienced wrongful death attorney about how to hold that negligent or careless party responsible. A qualified lawyer can fight for justice, obtain fair damages for what your loved one and family have been through, prevent similar outrages from happening to others, keep you organized and give you the peace of mind to focus on the important work still before you.
Please call the Kelly Law Team at 602-283-4122 for a free and private case evaluation by Avvo’s 2014 Client Choice Attorney.