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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

Grief Hurts - Literally

In reflecting on the seven months since my sister, Ann, died, I wondered about the effect grief has on the body. Where do we feel it when we grieve?

I stood at Ann's deathbed while she passed away. My heart hurt. Literally. I experienced pain in my chest. My mind kept shouting to me, "My heart is breaking! My heart is breaking!" All the while, tremendous guttural sobs burst from my body with such force that I doubled over. I laid my torso onto the bed and held onto the side of the mattress as she slipped away. That was exhausting.

Afterward, I continued to be exhausted. I had a respectable six hours or so of sleep that night. My mind was awake and actively working, But, my body expected to remain in a prone position for much of the day even while my mind whirled with thoughts of things I needed to accomplish.

I was physically tired for a few weeks. The days usually started with bursts of energy as I worked with clients and planned for Ann's Celebration of Life. Then, I swiftly sank into the couch unable to speak a word. My body collapsed into a sort of awake-coma. Was this grief?

I posed the question to myself and now I pose it to all of you. Where in your body do you feel your grief?

Looking back, I notice signs of how parts of my body and my senses respond to grief, or carry the grief, or... I am not sure what, exactly.

Over the past two years, classes I took about how to facilitate difficult conversations also focused on where people feel the stress in their bodies when engaged in triggering or polarizing topics. The instructors asked us, "Where do you feel it in your body when you facilitate on this topic." Actually, I remember my therapist asking where I feel emotions in my body, too..

In facilitation classes, we learned a number of techniques to release the pain our bodies might feel when being triggered. Acknowledging the pain is the first step. Meditation and visualization are helpful ways to deal with the effects on your body, after you acknowledge the pain. Another healing technique used by some indigenous tribes is burning herbs and tobacco. I participated in a ritual where you actively bring the smoke to you with your hands and encourage it to wash over you. Then, a healer brushes it off your shoulders, back, and legs to help dispel the stress and pain. It feels great!

When it comes to grieving for Ann or for the continual, gradual loss of my mom, Audrey, to dementia, I am still at the acknowledging stage. Looking back at notes I take most days in my journal, I searched for clues about where I am feeling the grief and what it might mean.

Did I really smell her?

Ann, like most people, had a very distinctive odor. Not the smell of her perfume or the icky, body odor smell we all generate. I once referred to it as "the essence of you" for which she tortured me the rest of my life with playful barbs. "Do I smell bad today? Or is it just the essence of me that reeks?" she would say.

A few weeks ago as I drifted off to sleep, I swear I smelled her. In my head I asked, "Ann? Are you here? What do you need?" I did not receive an answer. The scent lingered until I fell asleep. When I woke up, I realized my mind had become unstuck for the first time in years on a very specific behavior of mine. And, I suddenly had clarity around why I used to do this thing.

The thing is this: Most of my life until about seven years ago, I used to fall asleep rewriting stories in my head. The exercise was comforting and fun for me. I would visualize the characters of an existing novel or story and make changes to the plot in all ways. I changed their names, wrote new conversations for them, rewrote existing conversations, and created or fantasized new situations and endings.

I am unsure why I stopped this process, but I thoroughly missed it all those years. I often tried to get myself going again. I just could not recreate it, until that night a few weeks ago. Now, I am rewriting and writing every night once I lie down on my bed.

Did Ann send a whiff of her smell to wake up my mind? Or, did my mind create the scent to help me move beyond whatever was blocking me in the first place? I don't know.

Is this kind of experience related to grief? And what about all of the songs she sends us? Music provided constant friendship and emotional relief for Ann. So, it made sense when all she left us for a roadmap on how to conduct her Celebration of Life was a list of songs. I incorporated those songs into the celebration. The songs were: "The Cross" by Prince, "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, "Blackbird" by the Beatles, "Harpo's Blues" by Phoebe Snow, and "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix.

Many of us in the family suddenly heard songs in our heads from seemingly nowhere. For instance, my sister Chris mentioned, "I think Ann sent me a song. But I don't think it makes sense. It's 'Paint It Black' by the Rolling Stones." It did make sense! In fact, that song was so much a part of Ann that I used it for her ringtone.

I believe she sent me a few songs by Heart, our favorite band when we were teenagers. In particular, "Dog & Butterfly." Did she really send us the tunes, or did it come from grief? Should these stories be part of the All the Spooky Stuff article instead of this essay? I also felt her hand on my shoulder after she died. Hmmm...

Thinking of Mom Makes My Neck and Shoulders Hurt

Dementia is a pain in the neck for me.

In the early days of the illness, when we realized the level to which mom was affected, I had trouble with breathing. Sometimes, I held my breath for long periods of time. Sometimes I panted. Horror coursed through me over the loss of my mom's vital, independent mind. Anxiety tugged at me constantly while we made arrangements and tried to solve the problem of caring for her properly and preserving her dignity.

We solved the problems many times over. Once the immediate issue was solved, a new one One time, Mom was in the hospital for getting dizzy and passing out in her apartment. Apparently, she had not been taking her meds. My neck stiffened and filled with aches. The pain spread to my shoulders and into my hands. Was it stress? Definitely. Was it grief?

It is easy to identify the effects of stress. But, what about the grief? Grief is the thing we often dismiss. We don't have time for grief. We have to act on the new issue, whatever it might be. We abandon our grief. It becomes the third wheel on a date.

So, grief looks for a place to exist. It wants to be noticed. It shows up in our bodies yelling, "Look at me! Notice me!" It needs to be acknowledged. It needs time to recover. I think grief needs a hug.

While writing this, my neck stiffens and my shoulders throb. If think about mom's deteriorating condition for too long, my hands start to tingle and become numb.

I felt the same sensations worrying about Ann when she was alive. She had been ill for 52 years when she died and in pain most of that time. The worry over her was constant. It was less worry about her actual illnesses, and more about her moods. Did she have any quality of life? What did she enjoy?

How does one separate the worry and stress from the grief? For me the catalyst for the pain does not matter. The effects in my body are the same.

Soon after Ann died, I received a notification from Words With Friends that Mom had forfeited her games with me. Staring at me from my phone were unfinished games with Ann, too. My temples throbbed. My eyes became teary. My throat tightened and clenched.

Now, every time something big happens, like Owen passing his driving test, my immediate thought is to call Ann and Mom to share the news. Then, my chest tightens, my ankles hurt, my body becomes weak, and my mind freezes. I remember. Both of them are gone.

Grief, I acknowledge you. If I give you a hug, will you let me go?

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