June 29, 2016

Managing the Physical Pain of Grief.

Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr

The physical pain of grief is a universally experienced, sometimes overwhelming set of sensations that we don’t talk about enough.

Even though scientists don’t yet know much about why we experience physical pain when we’re grieving, there are things we can do to help it along in its process.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I work with my clients to find their way out of all sorts of pain by helping them figure out where their pain is coming from. I teach them how to reconnect to themselves and pay attention to their bodies so they know when pain is on its way, and give them tools to relieve pain if it does show up.

Grief can, of course, manifest differently from person to person, but for many of us it comes in three forms:

Physical heaviness, especially in your chest. The phrase “heavy heart” has been around in the English language since at least 1300. The sadness of grief can manifest physically in our chests as tightness, or as weight pulling us down toward the ground.

Disconnection from the world, despite the heaviness in our chests. Part of the process of grief is a period of emotional numbness, and we go through a physical manifestation of it too. We may feel it as a vague sense of too much or not enough distance between us and the world, or a lack of interest in interacting with the world.

Anger, which may not have a clear outlet or direction. In cases where we experience the deepest grief, the cause of our loss is often something random outside of our control, like illness, an accident or violence. Not having a concrete place to direct anger can leave it burning inside us, making us lash out at those around us or at ourselves in potentially dangerous ways.

So what can be done with these giant sensations and emotions? Whether we are grieving those lost in Orlando, a beloved pet, a family member, or something else, here are a few things to try.

Breathe. Think of the breath you take when you sigh or yawn. It’s a full lung breath, all the way from your diaphragm, at the base of your rib-cage, to the tops of your lungs, up under your first rib and your collarbones. Try placing your hands around different parts of your rib-cage (front, back, sides, up, down) and breathing into the gentle pressure of your hands—literally helping yourself to open places that get closed off by grief.

Go easy though. Breath is a powerful tool, and if you disrupt its normal pattern too abruptly, it can set off a sense of panic. If at any moment it feels like too much, pause and back off, then come back later.

Stomp. Do it. Sitting, standing, on grass, on a floor, on a sidewalk, do it. The earth can take your anger. It won’t get scared away, no matter how big and fiery your anger is. Stomp so that you can feel your own connection the ground. Feel your bones reverberate with the impact. (If you aren’t in a place where you can full-out stomp, just a few strong taps with your heels can do a lot of good.)

Define your space. Bring your hands in front of you. How far do you extend your hands in front until you’ve found what feels like the edge of your space? To the sides? Backwards? Above your head? In the midst of grief, that boundary could be really close or really far away, and both are okay.

Find out for yourself—what kind of boundary is it? Acknowledge it and its importance. Is it the space of your sadness, of your anger, of safety, or of something else? Does it have a hard edge or a soft edge? Does it change if you define it with your hands in a different position?

Cry and laugh. Both are enormously physiologically important for dealing with stress and grief. If you feel like you can’t cry or can’t laugh, be patient with yourself and they’ll show up in their own time.

Also, as soon as you feel ready to, or even if you don’t yet…go and find someone to give you a good, solid hug.


Author: Rachel Hamstra

Image: Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr

Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Emily Bartran 


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Rachel Hamstra