Please Note: This article has come from The Compassionate Friends and whilst the authors experience was not as a widow, the impact on our body and mind is very similar.
The loss of a child is a life-shattering experience. It affects us physically as well as emotionally. The grief we experience is felt on an emotional level and the stress of these emotions can create havoc with our bodies. If we had a physical illness before our child died our grief can exacerbate the existing illness. It can also open the way for physical illness if we have been previously healthy.
Grief makes us susceptible to diseases such as the common cold sore throats and other infections. Other diseases shown to be connected to the stress of grief are ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, heart disease and cancer.
The connection between the mind and body is not always recognised, but there is real scientific evidence that what we think and feel has a direct effect on our biological systems. This is an especially important issue for bereaved parents because the loss of a child is the ultimate in stress and a stress that lasts so very long.
Bodies of all human beings (and animals alike) react to stress in basically the same manner. In 1944 Hans Selye a neurophysiologist formulated the three phases of stress reactions but it is only recently that scientists can identify with considerable accuracy what actually takes place.
According to Selye the reaction to stress happens in three phases but for our purpose we will only discuss phase one.
The first phase or the “alarm reaction” occurs immediately on contact with the stressor (grief at the death of our child).
At the death the brain “translates” the stress of grief into a chemical reaction in the body. The pituitary gland located at the base of the brain is stimulated to produce a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin hormone (ACTH). This reaction is a “protective” one and in essence makes the body ready to do battle. The ACTH (from the pituitary gland) then travels to the adrenal gland, a gland at the top of the kidneys, which causes a chemical reaction, which ultimately produces cortisone.
As the cortisone level increases it causes the production of ACTH to level off. This circle of the building up of one chemical that stimulates the production of another chemical that “turns off” the original one is known as “biofeedback.”
What happens in the case of grief where the stress continues for many months’ the biofeedback does not operate, as it should? Because the stress is continuing, the production of ACTH is continuing thus causing the adrenal gland to produce more and more cortisone. The result is an abnormally high level of cortisone circulating in the blood sometimes exceeding ten to twenty times the normal levels.)
A high level of cortisone is one of the things that cause our immune system
(the system that normally fights off disease carrying bacteria fungi and viruses) to falter.
The high level of cortisone affects yet another gland the thalamus which manufactures the white cells of our blood. With the thalamus not functioning properly it cannot produce white cells that are effective. Those white cells normally locate and phagocytise (eat up) the invading germs. Viral particles or even pre-cancerous cells. Thus with the white cells unable to function properly the individual is 100% more susceptible to the most common germs.
Of course this is an over simplified description of the chemistry of stress but knowing that there is a legitimate reason for susceptibility to illness during grief encourages us to take preventive measures.
Knowledge that changes in eating habits; problems with sleeping: restlessness; lack of physical energy; and various other manifestations, are a normal part of the grieving process will lessen the stress to some extent.
Another way to lessen the stress and probably the most helpful is to acknowledge and appropriately express the emotions that we feel during grief. These measures can considerably decrease the potential for illness to develop because it displaces and releases the tension brought on by the stress of grief. And certainly good nutrition exercise and proper rest are essential preventive measures.
Another point to consider too is that the stress of grief is rarefying the only stress we are experiencing at the time of our child’s death. Problems in our marriage or with our surviving children are only two examples of the other stresses that may be added to the stress of grief. Put a number of stresses together and our bodies will surely suffer.
We must be very aware that our child’s death and the resultant grief is a legitimate reason for physical illness. We must do whatever we can to lessen our susceptibility.
Heading directly into our grief and allowing ourselves to face our painful emotions is the most helpful thing we can do. Talking about our child and the circumstances of the death, crying when we need to and talking with someone who will listen non-judgmentally to our anger and guilt is the only way to successfully resolve our grief—and ultimately resolve the stress that is caused by the grief.
The majority of bereaved parents experience some kind of physical illness in the first four to six months after the death of their child. For most the illness can be directly tied into the extreme stress of their child’s death. I know it is hard to be concerned about yourself physically when you hurt so badly emotionally.
Remember you will not always be in this emotional pain.
Remember too if you have damaged your body in the early months of grief you run the risk of never completely recovering from the physical illness—and recovery for bereaved parents means recovery in body as well as mind.
Margaret H. Gerner, M.S.W.
The Compassionate Friends, USA