WINNIPEG, MB - It may seem counterintuitive to talk about grief in a column dedicated to healthy living, but grief in response to the loss of a loved one is something everyone will experience in their lifetime. Talking about grief and how it affects a person both mentally and physically is an important part of any discourse on healthy aging. Grieving is a very personal journey, and no two people travel the exact same path.
My own mother died 31 years ago and I’ve learned through years of practice to celebrate her life as opposed to mourning her death. Honouring her legacy of kindness and selflessness has helped me move through the waves of grief which threatened to overwhelm me as a 17-year-old girl. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you’re probably familiar with the emotional stages of grief, which range from denial and anger to sadness and acceptance. But grief can also affect your physical health – the expression “sick with grief” resonates for good reason.
I witnessed my father’s intense grief for his beloved wife and wished there was something I could do to ease his pain. The loss of a spouse is considered one of the most emotionally devastating events in anyone’s life. A book on grief entitled Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences & Care, confirmed that the intensity and pain associated with the death of a husband or wife is magnified by the very nature of the marital relationship because, “spouses are co-managers of the home and family, companions, sexual partners, and fellow members of larger social units.” As was the case with my father, the powerful bond between two people who loved each other very much persists long after death.
The burden of sole responsibility also falls heavily on the surviving spouse, like managing the household finances or maintaining family relationships, which deepens the emotional toll. According to a Statistics Canada report from 2017, almost 1.9 million Canadians are widowed, and 1.5 million are women. In fact, widows account for 45 per cent of all women over the age of 65.
Recent research studies have also confirmed that intense grief can actually weaken your immune system and affect your physical health. A study published in the BMC Journal of Immunity & Ageing confirmed that for older adults, the death of a husband or wife can leave the surviving spouse more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Older mourners showed reduced function in their neutrophils (white blood cells that help fight off infection) compared to the control group. Researchers theorize that the cause of this reduced function is an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.
Sometimes well-meaning friends and family members, who hate to see their loved ones “sick” with grief, offer advice on how to get better and move on with life. Hearing my father cry late at night in the quiet of his bedroom tore at my heart and I wanted to fix his broken heart. I learned at a young age that’s not how grief works – you can’t “will” someone better or hurry the process along. One of the best-reviewed books on grief is by Julia Samuel, an English psychotherapist who’s worked with grieving families for 25 years, entitled Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving. Ms. Samuel was also a good friend of the late Princess Diana.
She emphasizes that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and writes, “Recovery and adjustment can take much longer than most people realize. We need to accept whatever form it takes, both in ourselves and in others.” Ms. Samuel also acknowledges that a recent loss can bring up feelings of a previous one. When my father passed away suddenly a few years after my mother, it brought me back to the pain I felt when she died, compounding the grief.
From her experience, Ms. Samuel offers some advice on how to deal with grief after the death of a loved one. Here is a brief summary, as published in an excerpt from the British paper, The Telegraph:
- Remember to express your grief in a way that works for you. According to Ms. Samuel, the key is connecting to the feelings you have inside.
- Show yourself compassion. Ms. Samuel reminds people to listen to their own needs, so be kind to yourself and don’t be critical of how you feel or how you are handling things.
- Find a way to nurture your body and mind during this process. Eat well, rest, and try to exercise or get outside for a walk when you can.
- Understand your limits. When you go through a devastating loss, your capacity to work and participate in social activities is likely to be affected. Ms. Samuel advises people to recognize the power of saying no.
- Dealing with the loss of someone you love can turn your whole world upside down. Adding some structure to your day, like a practicing yoga every morning, can help people feel like they’ve regained some control.
And finally, if you or someone you love is struggling with grief, it may be a good idea to reach out to a trained mental health professional or join a bereavement support group. A listing of support programs is available from Palliative Manitoba at http://palliativemanitoba.ca/programs-and-services/bereavement-services/.
This article is meant to be informational in nature and should not replace the advice of a trained healthcare professional.
By Krystal Stokes who is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline