Grief and Its Body of Work
A recent New York Times article by Ann Finkbeiner, “After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away,” asks the question, “what is the path of grief through the body?” Unsurprisingly, the answer is not simple, but this lack of simplicity is not only because grief is an expansive and often culturally bound experience, but because there hasn’t been comprehensive research funded to answer it. "Hybrid science is seldom funded well,” writes Finkbeiner. “Grief is neither a disease nor is it classified as a mental disorder, and the main funding agency, the National Institutes of Health, has no single established channel for funding it."
The physical experience of grief kicks off in the brain, where 'certain hormones … fan out into the body, affecting the cardiovascular system and the cells of the immune system.'
What we know is grief impacts our cognitive and physical functioning. The physical experience of grief kicks off in the brain, where “certain hormones … fan out into the body, affecting the cardiovascular system and the cells of the immune system." While the associated symptoms generally subside, “complicated grief,” or grief that persists or even intensifies over time, affects about 10 percent of those grieving. Finkbeiner recalls her own grief, at the loss of her son over thirty years ago, and how in the midst of the pandemic, those not acutely experiencing loss may instead revisit grief that remains. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the more than 565,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in the United States,” she writes. “Each of them has left, on average, nine people grieving. That’s more than five million people going through the long process of grief.”
So, how do we process this “pain that doesn’t go away?”
Most research instructs us to lean into wellness rituals, including gentle physical movement, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and attention to physical healthcare. In addition, finding a community that can witness and lend support during the grieving process is valuable. While researchers may be years out from fully understanding the physical journey of grief, therapists and community can play an important role in supporting those experiencing it.
If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
Join the EOL grief community, Wander.
Header photo: Francisco Moncada Carrasco/iStock/Getty Images Plus