Losing a family member, dear friend or a cherished pet is one of life’s most painful experiences. When we lose a loved one there is actually a double loss. Not only do we lose that person’s physical presence, we lose the potential for what might have been. The loss of physical presence can sometimes be overwhelming. There can be an acute longing for a familiar scene, a craving to be touched, or the searching of stranger’s faces hoping to catch a glimpse of the one lost. It can be triggered by the sight of an empty chair at the table, a familiar piece of clothing worn by someone else, the scent of a familiar perfume or after shave, or by anything that is a reminder of the departed.

While these reactions are most intense immediately following a death, the sharpness of the pain eases with time. The pain from loss of potential can last far longer because there are constant and ongoing reminders of all the occasions and experiences your loved one will miss. These might be trips and vacations never be taken, graduations not attended, birthdays, anniversaries and weddings not celebrated and even children that will never be born. The inevitable result of all this loss is grief, which must be processed and eventually released if we are to remain healthy.

The English word “grief” is derived from the French word “greve” which means “a heavy burden.” Since grief can literally weigh us down that is an accurate description. Lethargy, muscle weakness and exhaustion are common reactions to grief. Struggling with the burden of grief can also result in negative lifestyle changes that lead to poorer health. These might include turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with emotions, starting to smoke, driving recklessly, isolating oneself, not eating, or mindlessly engaging in some kind of risk taking behavior.

When a person suffers a major shock or loss, the autonomic nervous system automatically goes into stress mode, commonly known as “fight or flight.” Stress mode causes higher production of steroids which increase heart rate and blood pressure. A grieving individual can also experience a wide range of other physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, shortness of breath, head and other body aches, dizziness, heart palpitations, digestive problems, anxiety, weight loss or gain, or uncontrolled crying. Prolonged stress to the nervous system also impacts the immune system, resulting in a major decrease in the body’s ability to fight infections. Grieving individuals are more prone to colds and other minor illnesses, and pre-existing health conditions can become worse.

Some years ago a chart of stress points created by T.H. Omes and R. H. Rahe was published in the World Book Medical Encyclopedia “Journal of Psychosomatic Research.” These researchers took 100 of the most common emotional stressors to the human body and assigned a point count to each one. Studies have since revealed that anyone who accumulates 150 – 300 stress points in a 12-month period has a 50% chance of contracting an illness that requires hospitalization. A score of 300 points increases that risk to 90%. The death of a spouse alone is worth 100 points. Death of a close family member is 63 points. If those points are combined with other stressors such as change in financial state, change in living conditions, revision of personal habits, change of social activities, change in sleeping habits, and change of eating habits, the end result is a whopping 236 stress points! Therefore, as difficult as it may be to think about your own well being at the time of a significant loss, it is vitally important to care for yourself, particularly if there are children or others who must depend on you.

Grieving is not easy but it must be worked through to remain healthy both mentally and physically. There is an old saying that “time heals all wounds,” but time cannot heal anything if you fail to address the emotional pain underlying the loss. Grief can take as long as a lifetime when psychic wounds remain unhealed. Each of us must process grief in our own way, and there is no set time limit or single way to do that.

There are, however, certain shared commonalities. According to Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is well known for her studies on death and dying, there are five main stages of grief. The first is denial: “This can’t be happening to me. I’ll wake up and this will just be a nightmare.” The second is anger: “Why is this happening to me? Who can I blame?” The third is bargaining: “Please, God, if you will just make this not happen I promise to_________.” The fourth is depression: “Everything is hopeless and I am too sad even to get out of bed.” The fifth and final stage is acceptance: “I’m at peace with what has happened.”

Dr. Kubler-Ross never meant these phases to be a rigid framework for grief, and in her last book written before her death in 2004 she clarified this when she wrote. “These were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

While some people go through all the stages, others may only experience one or two. It is not uncommon to get stuck at some points and be unable to move on without help. Anger is one of those places. Although it may seem both irrational and confusing to the bereaved, anger is often directed at the deceased for leaving. It may also stem from a sense of frustration because the death could not have been prevented. If the anger remains unaddressed, there is a risk that the anger will become focused on blaming others. Worse yet, it can be turned inward resulting in depression, another common place to become stuck.

If you or someone you know is stuck in a cycle of prolonged grief, you are urged to seek help. There are many effective therapies readily at hand. Grief counseling is useful to help you talk through your feelings and regain some sense of direction. Energy therapies such as EMDR and NLP are also beneficial. One of the simplest and most effective ways to move through grief is Emotional Freedom Technique which addresses the source of the wounding in the subconscious mind. EFT is a highly effective stress management tool that literally can reset the body’s energy system much like a circuit breaker restores electricity to an overloaded circuit. Often referred to as “needleless acupuncture” EFT works on the same body meridians as traditional acupuncture but without the needles. It is easy to learn and can be used by anybody, any time, anywhere. It can provide the comfort you need at 3:00 a.m. when sleep won’t come and the magnitude of your loss seems overwhelming.

Author's Bio: 

Judith Albright, MA, EFT-ADV is an Emotional Freedom Technique Practitioner and PSYCH-K® facilitator in Ft. Collins, CO who helps people neutralize stress and release emotional issues that are limiting their lives. For more information visit stressfreewitheft.com or call 970 218-8643.