Processing and healing from grief

July 14, 2021 Simona Trakiyska


In this article:

  • Grief is a combination of emotions, thoughts and physical reactions connected to loss that can impact our body, mind and brain.
  • Grief is associated with various stages, but they don’t always appear in a particular order, and often repeat over time.
  • Providence Chaplains Joel Alsworth and Sarah Brody share their thoughts and expertise on how we can better manage grief and find ways to cope and heal.

Grief is a normal, powerful emotional response to loss that comes in many forms. Beyond losing a loved one, grief may also appear in times of separating from someone, letting go of a career or facing personal hardships or illness. When it comes to one’s health journey, from prognosis and diagnosis to the treatment itself, individuals can experience an overload of emotions.

Grief can strain your heart. The symptoms of grief can vary, from intense yearning, numbness and disbelief to denial, anger and disengagement. If acute distress is prolonged it can turn into complicated grief. This is a condition that can lead to serious physical and psychological problems such as depression, loneliness and isolation, emotional and mental exhaustion, substance misuse and high blood pressure – all of which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disorder, cancer and other health problems.

If you are undergoing treatment yourself, grief may appear in the form of fear of the future, bitterness, lack of motivation and a diminished sense of identity. Grieving is part of being human. Know that everything that you might be going through is understandable. Whatever the reason for grief, it changes you. However, there are coping strategies that can ease your way to remission.

The experience or the loss you have gone through does not need to be forgotten or suppressed, but it can be honored and seen as a part of the overall human experience, which sometimes is sweet and other times bitter. Yes, it’s easier said than done. When it comes to our health, giant things can happen to us and all we can do is to trust in ourselves, science and the healing hands of those who treat us. It’s ok for your fears to be present, regardless of the why, but it is in those moments when you must be the kindest to yourself. Belief, strength and hope go a long way.

At Providence we understand, beyond the treatment itself, the difficulty associated with mental and emotional pain. We relate to the uniqueness of each patient, respect their grieving process and offer sensitivity from a place of compassion in every step of our patients' healing journey. Grief counseling, healing and coping strategies can help you to better navigate life, move towards acceptance and encourage you to find “you” in whatever new form, so you can live a fulfilling life while embracing your truth.

Physical and emotional grief responses

In this podcast about “Processing and Healing from Grief” Joel Alsworth and Sarah Brody, both Chaplains at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, share their advice and insights on what grief is, how to cope and its application to loss in general.

What we understand from the interview is that there are known stages of grief such as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. However, these emotions and expressions don’t always appear in a particular order.

“Grief is not orderly, and it is often very, very messy. Grief can move through multiple stages, multiple times.” – Joel Alsworth

From the conversation with Joel and Sarah we learn that grief is associated with multifaceted physical and emotional responses in the body and mind – all of which are natural human expressions. The problem comes when an individual is suppressing their emotions and simultaneously holding onto the nostalgia and sadness for a prolonged period. That can often lead to complicated grief which is linked to more serious health problems. On a physical level, there can be changes in heart rate, increased inflammation and blood pressure. On a psychological level, it can lead to severe stress, anxiety, body aches and in some cases thoughts of death, diminished identity and emptiness.

How grief impacts the body

The National Institute of Health (NICH) reports that grief does impact the body, mind and brain showcasing that there are immune, neural, cardiovascular and endocrine correlations connected to bereavement. When grief is connected to death the consequences are even greater. Years of research has confirmed and recognized that the loss of a loved one is “one of the greatest life stressors that we face as humans.” In fact, some of the most compelling evidence showcases that the “broken-heart phenomenon” can lead to “increased risk of mortality for bereaved people in the first six months after the loss event compared to their married counterparts.”

In this research absence of grief and the suppression of the intense emotional experiences we are going through have also been highlighted as important indicators that may lead to prolonged and complicated grief. Thus, adaptation to grief while not easy, is necessary.

“There is not much healing that happens in isolation.” – Sarah Brody

Healing while grieving

Whatever the source of grief, it’s important to recognize - even embrace - our pain, not to ignore it, to be patient with ourselves and to hold space of self-compassion, safety and love. Finding coping mechanisms can help us heal, let go of guilt and pain, find light and hope again. Being connected to others as well will make you feel heard, understood and supported. Here are a few recommendations that can help you start your healing process.

Acceptance: Grief can be invisible. Sometimes you realize you are living life as if nothing has changed. As humans we tend to suppress what we don’t want to face. Acceptance is the first step because it will help you to open up about the fears or sorrows you are going through, acknowledging that you have suffered a loss.

Giving yourself permission to grieve:  Being vulnerable and open will give you the space you need to express your feelings, freely. You are allowed to grieve and don’t need anyone’s approval. Journal, sit in silence in quiet spaces, unwind, pray and connect to those who can really hear you out.

Understand your emotions: If your pain is very recent and you need to sit with your thoughts, feelings and emotions – do it. In stillness you can introspect and release. Some moments might feel more intense than others and that’s fine. Getting back to “normal” takes time, try to walk lightly even though you may still be hurting.

Coping with life changes: Life constantly changes, and we change with it. Create an intentional space in your home that allows you to disconnect. Some people may need to find an outlet that allows them to immerse themselves in an activity, where they can be in the “flow” and as a result their attention will not be fully on the pain. Others may just need to listen to calming music and find space to unwind.

Capture changes in your behavior: It is important for you to keep an eye on the changes in your behavior over time. If you notice major changes in your routine, talk to your doctor about actionable steps that you can take to maintain your health.

Building a support system: Sharing your grief with friends and family members who understand your feelings and respect your process can help you to sustain your energy, encourage and support you. Participating in different groups and working with a counselor can also help you to feel understood as well as to learn about different coping mechanisms.

Healing methods: When you are in a state of grief your body can stiffen and slowly you can even lose connection with your own skin. Our central immune systems can undergo changes. Our nervous system becomes tight. In a deep state of grief, we can get sick. Exercises, and specifically yoga and meditation, can help you sustain an emotional, mental and physical balance. Baths can soothe the nerves. Also, walks, bright colors, laughter and eating healthy are all good tools to help you get your life and energy back.

Sharing with others: Use your experience as a powerful way to inspire, educate or prompt someone to take an action that can help them to stay healthy. Storytelling allows people to bond, resonate and find contentment. Your story could even save lives.

At Providence we believe in oneness, compassion and kinship. We are here to support you on every step of your healing journey.

Learn more about mental health services at Providence:

Providence mental health services

Swedish behavioral health services

Find a doctor

Our behavioral health experts offer virtual and in-person consultations to bring you convenient, confidential mental healthcare options. With Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory to find one near you.

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Related Resources

Understanding the interplay between mindsets, feelings and behaviors

Living through loss: How to cope when a life partner dies

Grieving for normalcy: Ways to help you cope

Help is Here: A list of local and national behavioral health resources

Behavioral health urgent care: Access to help when you need it

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