Gray skin, tight chest, migraines: when you grieve, your body also suffers

When someone close to you dies, it doesn’t just mess up the feelings of those who stay behind. The body also reacts, sometimes violently: hair falls out or turns gray, the heart is racing, the back hurts. What’s behind it – and what helps?

If you lose a loved one, everything turns upside down for you. And the body sometimes no longer functions as usual during a period of grief. For example, when the chest feels so tight that deep breaths are hardly possible. Or if significantly more hair gets stuck in the brush when combing than before. “In the event of a loss, everything is connected. Body and mind can hardly be separated,” says Heidi Müller, scientist in the field of grief research.

“Everyone grieves differently,” says Susanne Haller, director of the Elisabeth Kübler Ross Academy at the Stuttgart Hospice. Accordingly, physical reactions to a drastic loss are varied. Whether migraines, dizziness, tightness in the chest, rapid heartbeat, back pain or diarrhea: the range is wide.

Many mourners walk more stooped

Some symptoms are invisible to outsiders, while others are straightforward. For example, the posture: “Many mourners no longer walk so upright, their heads hang a little, they move more slowly,” describes Annette Wagner. She is a board member of the Federal Association for Bereavement Support (BVT) and, among other things, also works as a hospital chaplain.

In her work with grieving people, she noticed again and again that they shiver – even on warm days. A hot tea and a cozy blanket are not only important for the soul, but also for the body.

Grayed out overnight?

It is often said that the hair can turn gray with grief in fast motion. The philosopher Karl Marx, for example, is said to have turned gray overnight after the death of his eight-year-old son. However, this phenomenon does not occur all too often. In her own words, Annette Wagner has only experienced grief counseling once in 20 years, with a widow: “Her hair turned snowy white within three days,” she says.

Even if the hair does not turn gray, many mourners still seem aged to outsiders. “The corners of the mouth are falling, the skin is ashy, there are dark circles under the eyes – this is what a sad person looks like,” says Wagner.

This also has to do with the circumstances in the grief phase, explains the expert: After a loss, the head often rattles so much that mourners find it difficult to sleep. In addition, there is often a loss of appetite, against which even the tastiest piece of chocolate cake is powerless. If exercise is neglected in everyday life, the body lacks good blood circulation – you can sometimes see all this in a grieving person.

Why the body can go crazy

The causes of the sometimes violent reactions of the organism to bereavement have not been fully explored: “We do not exactly know the underlying mechanisms,” says grief researcher Heidi Müller. What is clear, however, is that the loss of a loved one can be extremely stressful. There are explanations from biology that look at changes in the body’s hormonal balance. However, it is not explained in detail what happens in the body in connection with grief.

It has been proven that the death of a loved one can temporarily increase the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases: One 2010 study by the University of Sydney showed that people who had lost a loved one two weeks earlier had a higher average heart rate, which is associated with an increased risk of a heart attack. Six months after the loss, the average heart rate of the group studied had returned to normal.

That too Broken Heart Syndrome can be associated with grief: This is a disease of the heart muscle that is associated with symptoms similar to a heart attack.

If in doubt, go to the doctor – and don’t put any pressure on yourself

Against this background, says Susanne Haller from the Stuttgart Hospice, it is important that mourners do not simply dismiss physical complaints with statements such as “This is the mourning”, but are not afraid to go to the doctor with them.

If the physical complaints last for a while, a nagging thought quickly creeps in: “Am I doing something wrong?” Many mourners feel the pressure to quickly return to full performance at work and at work.

If the body and mind don’t go along with this, it causes frustration. Grief researcher Heidi Müller also takes a critical look at the demands of society: “In the past, the world came to a standstill for a person after a death. Nowadays – in a dynamic time with a high speed – that is no longer the case.”

Mourning costs energy

Even if it is not always easy to evade social expectations: According to Müller, it is important that mourners take breaks and take time for things that are good for them. Grief costs the body a lot of energy.

“But: It is a very natural expression. Grief is not the problem, but the solution,” says grief counselor Annette Wagner. If mourners can acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with their (physical) reactions to the loss, this can provide relief.

more on the subject

In general, it can help mourners to treat their own body with care and to regularly bring themselves into the here and now with small exercises.

Susanne Haller has some ideas on how this can be achieved. “If you’re not experiencing breathlessness, breathing exercises can be helpful,” she advises. Positioning yourself consciously and feeling the stable ground beneath your feet can also provide centering. As always, what exactly is good for you is only announced by one person – your own body.