Grief and Your Health

Author: Margaret Gerner

The loss of a loved one to death 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 loved one 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 recognized, 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 people because the loss of a loved one is the ultimate in stress-a stress that can last a very long time.

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 could identify with considerable accuracy what actually takes place. According to Selye the reaction to stress happens in three phases, but for our purposes 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 loved one. 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 adrenocorticotropic 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.

But what happens in the case of grief, when the stress continues for many months and 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 causes 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 phagocytize (eat up) the invading germs, viral particles, and even pre-cancerous cells. Thus with the white cells unable to function properly, the individual is much 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. Just knowing that various manifestations— changes in eating habits, problems with sleeping, restlessness, lack of physical energy—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. This 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 rarely the only stress we are experiencing at the time of our loved one's death. Problems in our marriage or with our surviving children or siblings are 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 loved one'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 loved one 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 primary way to successfully resolve our grief-and ultimately resolve the stress that is caused by the grief.

Many bereaved people experience some kind of physical illness in the first four to six months after the death of their loved one. For most, the illness can be directly tied into the extreme stress of their loved one's death.

I know it is hard to be concerned about yourself physically when you hurt so badly emotionally. But remember, you will not always be in this much 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 people means recovery in body as well as mind. 

Margaret H. GernerBy Margaret H. Gerner, MSW: Margaret Gerner is a bereaved mother, grandmother, and sibling. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Missouri at Columbia and has worked in the field of bereavement for more than 25 years. She has written extensively for The Compassionate Friends (TCF) and Bereaved Parents USA (BPUSA) and has worked with both organizations to help other bereaved parents learn healthy ways of coping with grief.