Dr. Good Grief: 3 Ways to Incorporate Your Grief Into Your Wellness

Grief can impact our bodies in #alltheways.

When my mom died, I knew that things with my bod were going to change. I knew I’d probably cry a lot (I was already a serious crier). I knew I would probably go to either end of the spectrum when it came to eating (following a history of an eating disorder). And I knew I’d likely sleep a lot (from the booze, the bad eating, and the unwillingness to see anyone because… duh, I was sad).

What I didn’t realize was the extent to which my grief could and would impact my body on other levels.

The first time that I reeeally worked out (see: fiance with a rugby background that KNOWS how to run this girl up a steep hill), my body. fuckin. exploded. I could. not. stop. crying. The hyperventilating and the overwhelming sadness ALL came up at once. Of course, after taking a walk, sobbing at the public park, and “collecting myself”, we talked through it and realized that those moments running up and down the hill were the first time I’d let my guard down, both mentally and physically. My mind and my body were vulnerable, so here came the tidal wave of emotions.

And clearly… there was some stuff goin’ on inside.

That was when I realized that it was time to take a more well-rounded approach to exploring how my grief - the sadness, anger, diet shifts, etc. - impacted my health.

Of course, when we have a funny stomach, can’t sleep, or cry at basketball practice, our first thought isn’t, “Must be my dead mom!!” But it can be really helpful to explore ways that your grieving is impacting all of your body, just to find out where there might be some links that you never would have thought of.

So below are some notes on how to incorporate conversations about your grief into visits to the doctor, fitness classes, and your everyday life.

Note: Not everyone - doctors, teachers, employers, etc. - is going to be as amazingly responsive as many of mine were. And the doctor’s office isn’t always a safe place for women and people of colour to speak up about their bodies and seemingly “abstract” things like grief and mental health. If you’re questioning someone’s ability to be sensitive, consider first asking these questions to someone you already trust, or to someone who a friend recos. Also, read to the bottom to find out more about how to find people online.

1. Tell your docs that you’re grieving.

The first time I decided to, talking to a doc about my grief felt weird. Of course I was used to telling my friends, fam, employers, and okay even strangers on the bus that my mom had died because I knew how it would impact my social and professional relationships. But I’d never had conversations about how it’d impact my heart’s relationship with my mind, or my mouth’s relationship with my gut.

So! When I first consulted with a nutritionist, I decided I’d tell her about my mom. I told her the usual, and slipped it in by just simply saying, “and my mom died about 9 months ago, and…” and she was ON IT! She not only connected with me about her own loss and how it had impacted her health, but made me feel WAY less crazy for having all of the symptoms that had seemingly come out of the blue since my mom’s death.

Grief and your dentist: Once I had insurance, I started seeing everyone I could to chat about how my overall decline in health, sleep, and overall physical feel-good-ness. And when it comes to oral health, grief can present in the form of tooth decay from a.) giving less of a shit about everything - including brushing your teeth b.) self-medicating with foods and * drinks * you wouldn’t normally consume that much of.

Grief and your GP / Naturopath: My naturopath gave. me. life. when I first started seeing her. We talked about how grief can impact your brain, immune system, energy, and even your muscles! One point - grief can present as having an impact on your ability to sleep - not just because “you can’t turn your brain off” or because “you are up cring all night” - but specifically because of how prolonged stress and sadness can shift our hormone levels.

“The first phase or the “alarm reaction” occurs immediately on contact with the stressor (grief…). At the death the brain “translates” the stress of grief into a chemical reaction in the body. The pituitary gland located at the base of the brain is stimulated to produce a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin hormone (ACTH). This reaction is a “protective” one and in essence makes the body ready to do battle. The ACTH (from the pituitary gland) then travels to the adrenal gland, a gland at the top of the kidneys, which causes a chemical reaction which ultimately produces cortisone. As the cortisone level increases it causes the production of ACTH to level off.

What happens in the case of grief where the stress continues for many months? The cycle does not operate as it should. Because the stress is continuing, the production of ACTH is continuing thus causing the adrenal gland to produce more and more cortisone. The result is an abnormally high level of cortisone circulating in the blood sometimes exceeding ten to twenty times the normal levels.” (read more here)

Grief and your dermatologist: Grief can present as all kinds of things outwardly on our bodies, as well internally. I was RANDOMLY at a health conference last year and was talking to a guy about soaps. We got to talking about eczema and inflammation of the skin, and dove straight into a convo about how grief and internal stress on our bodies can manifest through eczema (stressors on our gut), acne (shifts in our hormone levels and eating habits), and more.

Grief and your massage therapist: A few months after my mom died I had my first extreme back spasm. Bed ridden for days, had continued lower back pain for almost a year, and was just losing it over the fact that my body felt tense ALL the time. I told them that yeah, I’d been doing some shoveling the first time it popped off, wore heels from time to time, and work at a desk job. But once we started talking about how grief impacts our mental health (making us feel tired, sad, and small), they made the connection that grieving causes our posture to shift in many, many ways - including slouching in on ourselves for comfort, as well as spending more time sitting, sleeping, and on the couch because of leave or when we’re looking for “comfort”.

2. Tell your health class teachers that you’re grieving.

After running up that hill and realizing, “Okay okay, working out might bring some shit up!” I decided that I’d make a point to tell anyone teaching my fitness courses that my mom had died. This sounds weird when you imagine walking up to your yoga teacher before class and saying, “JUST SO YOU KNOW, MY MOM IS DEAD AND I MIGHT SOB MY GUTS OUT ONTO YOUR MATS!” (because whenever you say that stuff it feels like yelling). But something really amazing happened the first few times I did it.

A yoga instructor told me what poses to watch out for - because there are some that really open you up physically AND emotionally. And they also said that I could either just lay down and relax, lay down and cry - that it happens all the time - or totally feel free to just dip out whenever I needed to. This gave me the space to 1.) prepare for some parts of the class that could be hard 2.) make a decision about when and where I’d be willing to open up.

A kickboxing instructor told me that her dad was in the hospital dying, and that she was fully aware of how working out can randomly make you explode with sadness. She told me that at the same time, exercise can be a great space to relieve stress, anger, frustration, and all of the other stuff that builds up. So she encouraged me to step out or take a break whenever I needed to… but to punch the SHIT out of that bag when I had the energy.

3. Take to the web (and I DO NOT mean webMD).

If you don’t feel like you have a doctor who you can trust with this kind of conversation, consider taking to the web or an app. I DO NOT mean webMD (#spiraling anyone?) but rather a few mental health apps and health practitioner resources.

In Bed with Betty meditation (yes, from bed): If it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning when you’re grieving consider taking your meditation to your mattress. This incredible resource from Anita Cheung makes meditation accessible for anyone struggling to find a safe space to meditate with your grief (I still cry every single time I do it in a group).

Talkspace app for virtual therapy - this article covers complicated grief and how therapy can help guide us through our experience with loss. If you need someone to talk to but aren’t flush with cash or benefits, Talkspace has more accessible rates and docs around the world.

The Black Girl Healing Project: “As a black woman, it often feels as though we have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.” Jennifer’s virtual support - all focused on nutrition + healing - is an incredible resource for black women who need a safe space to explore the connections between their bodies and minds.

Yoga for beginners: Because we’re not all tryna go cry in a class, it can be amazing to just do something from home that helps your centre yourself on YOU for 30 minutes.

Yoga for Grief: “This gentle and nurturing 26 minute session is made with love and designed to support you, wherever you are today.”