How People Grieve – Sickness

Granger Westberg a University of Chicago chaplain-professor, observed:

I have slowly become aware of the fact that many of the patients I see are ill because of some unresolved grief situation. In an increasing number of cases these people tell me about some great loss they have sustained during the past months or year or two. I cannot help drawing the conclusion that there is a stronger relationship than we have ever thought between illness and the way a person handles a great loss. Unless someone can help them to work through the emotional problems involved in the stage in which they seem to be fixed, they will remain ill. No amount of medicine will significantly change the situation.

Dr. Lindemann describes physical symptoms commonly experienced in grief:

The picture shown by persons in acute grief is remarkably uniform. Common to all is the following syndrome: sensations of bodily distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time; a feeling of tightness in the throat; choking, with shortness of breath; need for sighing; an empty feeling in the abdomen; lack of muscular power; and an intense, subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.

These wave-like episodes tend to be especially intense and painful at night, when the distractions of the day are removed.

Remember George, the pill eater? George feels something’s wrong in his stomach but doesn’t make the connection between losing the old job he liked and his stomach troubles. George may not realize he’s grieving, but his stomach does.

There are at least two ways to combat the anxiety attacks mentioned above. One remedy comes from Alcoholics Anonymous: Move your body. Moving your body helps break up anxiety…take a walk…jog in place, but move.

A second remedy is learning to elicit the relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson, a medical researcher at Harvard’s Thorndike Memorial Laboratory, has discovered an easy-to-learn technique to reduce tension. His book, The Relaxation Response, is must reading for the person in grief.

Grieving people tend to have more physical problems than do other people. In Vol. 34, #5 of Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, Dr. Parkes and Mr. Brown report that during the first 14 months after the death of their spouses, widows and widowers under age 45 spent more days sick in bed or in a hospital than had a control group of people matched by age, occupation, religion, race, income and family size. The bereaved complained of dizziness, trembling, nervousness, pain in the chest, sweating without a cause, lump in the throat, and heart palpitations. They also reported more disturbances of sleep, appetite, and weight. They also increased their consumption of alcohol, tobacco and tranquilizers.

Not only do people in grief have more physical troubles, they also are more likely to die themselves. A study in the British Medical Journal, October 7, 1967, reports that during the first year of bereavement widowed people are ten times more likely to die than people in a control group matched by age. The mortality rate is particularly high during the first six months after bereavement. Close relatives of the deceased are seven times more likely to die during the first year of bereavement.