Grief is our normal and natural emotional response to the loss of something important. We often associate grief with the death of someone in our lives, and this is certainly a loss, but we can grieve the loss of many things, from broken relationships, to lost jobs, to even dreams of a preferred future that will never be. Even positive and anticipated changes or shifts in identity can elicit grief.
And grief is deep, complex, and multi-faceted. Our Western culture, including our Christian communities, still have a long way to go in the recognition of and attendance to grief. Due to impulses to hide or minimize grief in our familial or cultural norms, I often observe unidentified and neglected grief in many clients suffering from unexplained symptoms.
If you are battling any of the unexplained symptoms below, determining if grief could be at the root of your experience can be an important step toward healing.
In any transition there is always grief. Clients will often say to me, “but this is a good thing, I should be celebrating, why am I feeling depressed instead?” Often the answer is they haven't taken the time to acknowledge the loss within a positive transition. A new job, a move, leaving a relationship (even a tumultuous one), becoming a parent, retiring, graduating, and many other transitions are all examples of times in which we may not make sufficient space to identify and address our grief.
Our bodies are sometimes our greatest warning signs for unidentified grief. Are you experiencing a sensation of “heaviness,” frequent headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, crying spells, digestive issues, decrease in appetite, disrupted sleep, or muscle soreness? Consult with a physician to rule out any medical condition associated with these symptoms. After doing so, one can then assess if grief could play a role in these physical indicators. When we pay attention to our bodies, we can often learn something that our conscious minds may not have yet acknowledged about our emotional and psychological state.
Some studies have shown that grief, especially in those over 30, can cause a reduction in the functioning of our white blood cells used to fight off infections and can increase the stress hormone cortisol. This combination can lead to a vulnerability of the immune system that makes one highly susceptible to illness and infection.
If you are finding yourself to have a shorter capacity for frustration and are more easily triggered to irritability this may be another indicator of an unresolved reaction to grief. When you notice the irritability, it can be helpful to pause and ask, “What am I really feeling?”
Difficulty performing normative functions can be a sign that your brain needs time to grieve. The neuroscience behind this symptom has to do with how grief affects the process of neurogenesis. Specifically, in the area of the brain called the hippo-campus, which is crucial for learning and memory and plays a part in the regulation of emotion and mood. This pivotal process can be negatively impacted by prolonged, untreated, and/or unidentified grief and will often result in difficulty with normative daily functioning, memory, and/or focus.
If there is an increased disinterest in relationships or social activity that causes withdrawal or isolation this may be a sign that you have grief that you need to process. Whether because you are feeling misunderstood, or due to an unexplained desire to pull back from normative social interaction, or just an increased need to refill your emotional fuel tank before dealing with others, this withdrawal is often a sign that there is a need for identifying and addressing your grief.
Often anxiety due to identified grief can manifest in rumination about tasks to be completed in your loss or change, anticipatory fears and worries about what is to come, obsessing and researching topics related to your transition, and/or an over emphasis on performance or the expectation of perfection from oneself. If you are suffering from these or other unexplained symptoms of anxiety, it can be useful to consider if this might be a sign of grief.
If you can relate to some or even all of these indications of unidentified grief, it is important that you allow yourself to acknowledge and process this emotional response. Let it begin with an acknowledgement that loss hurts. Naming the pain is a first step in working through it.
Grieving is a journey that is best taken with grace, a lack of expectations, support from others and God, honesty, and room for whatever time one needs. Psychotherapy, exercise, prayer, journaling, art, music, visualization/meditation, and other tools can be healthy ways to address and move through one’s grief. I invite you to journey. In doing so, I encourage you to look past stereotypes, fears, and judgments about grief and choose instead to accept grief as a normal process in loss and change. It is an essential and healthy practice that we all can benefit greatly from!