Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and Friday marks the second anniversary of my own father’s passing, so I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about things like legacy, family, grieving, and wellness. Because I’m always thinking about wellness. Especially yours.
As fathers go, mine was pretty great. Maybe the best ever, and that is how I will always remember him. Losing him was like losing a piece of my soul. I know he’s in Heaven, and I know I will see him again — it’s one of the unshakable tenets of my faith. But that doesn’t make the loss any less real.
How does this tie to wellness?
Death and Wellness
Because I live in one of the top places to retire in the world, and because so many of my patients are in the 60-and-over category, death and grieving are a part of my practice. I can’t begin to count how many of my patients I have spoken with over the years as they were walking through the process of saying goodbye to loved ones – spouses, parents, siblings, children. It never ceases to grip me as I watch their tears come to the surface.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Death is a part of life, and as long as humans are connected to each other in meaningful relationships, each person’s death is a part of other peoples’ lives. Saying goodbye is a two-way street, and for the survivors who continue on, grieving is a necessary part of wellness.
I don’t want to be a downer in the middle of your summer festivities, nor do I want to darken your Father’s Day celebrations, but as a wellness coach, this is a topic I need to talk about.
Grieving is Never Fun, But…
But it hurts, you say.
Yeah, I know. Grieving is never fun. Having been on both sides of the conversation, I know very well how raw and real the feelings are. Nobody looks forward to it or wants to be in a position where grieving is necessary. But the truth remains that unless you know how to grieve effectively, the process of loss can harm you in multiple ways.
I’m not a counselor, and if you find yourself in the pain of loss, I encourage you to talk to a trained counselor who can guide you through the process. Today, we need to talk about how the emotional and physical aspects of grieving work together.
Follow The Process
Grieving is a part of the larger process of mourning. You can mourn the loss of a loved one (or even a lost opportunity, career, friendship, etc.) for months or even years. Like a wound or a broken bone, a broken heart will heal, but its almost never instantaneous. One day, you will wake up and find the sun shining just a little bit brighter, but in the meantime, you cannot rush the process nor shame yourself for taking so long. Don’t be shocked or ashamed if you cry on birthdays and Christmases for a couple of years, but don’t be shocked or ashamed if you don’t, either. Each mourning is a little different. Some faiths have a prescribed period of time for mourning, but that’s usually a process for the whole community to share. Individual mourning is a private process that can’t be put in a box.
Within that context, grieving itself is a process, not an event. It is usually a process of letting go physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I’m trying to talk about it in a kind of clinical and detached way for the purpose of this article, but the fact of the matter is that grieving is not a neat and tidy activity. There are almost always tears; in fact, trying to stifle the tears can short-circuit the process. They are a part of the healing.
Grieving can’t be scheduled. You can’t make it be convenient or set the time limits on it, and you can’t always predict what will trigger the tears. You can only flow with it to let your soul heal properly.
The Obvious Questions
The two questions that I would guess are lingering in your mind are, “what does this have to do with wellness?” and “why is the Chiropractor talking about this?”
As I’ve shared many times here, humans are multi-faceted creatures with bodies, souls, and spirits. Every part of your life is connected to all of the others: your physical wellness is tied to your emotional wellness, spiritual wellness, financial wellness, and relational wellness. If you need proof, just think about the last time you had a fight with your spouse or you got an overdraft notice from your bank. Did you feel the pressure in your gut? Did your head hurt for awhile? Emotions trigger physical reactions, and our emotions interact with all the other parts of our lives. Everything is connected.
So, when it comes to loss and grieving, the emotions we experience play out in our bodies. If your spouse died and left you in a bad financial position, the stress of that new burden manifests in your body. It can start with abdominal pain and headaches, but it can wind up in ulcers, heart disease, and even stroke.
Unhappy Feelings Have A Place In Your Life, But…
Shock, denial, and anger are normal parts of the grieving process, but if you linger in any of them, the constant negative emotions can trigger a flood that can gradually hurt your wellness:
Your body produces a catalog of chemicals – called neurotransmitters – that regulate everything from breathing and digestion to how you react to danger. Neurotransmitters like adrenaline and cortisol play important roles in charging up your body to run away or stand and fight, but if you leave the faucets on all the time, they will begin to erode organs and muscle tissue. Stress has its place in your life in short bursts, but your body was not designed for long-term exposure to those chemicals, so release the pressure in a healthy way before it has a chance to build up.
Anger and Bitterness
You will likely be angry with your loved one for leaving you, whether they had control over the outcome or not. That’s normal; it’s a part of grieving. But carrying over that anger into unforgiveness can lead to bitterness. Bitterness doesn’t just poison your soul, it can also create an acidic environment in your vital organs that can leave you vulnerable to cancer. If you didn’t know that unforgiveness is linked to cancer, read here.
A Broken Heart
Sometimes a broken heart can actually break your heart. Your chance of having a heart attack goes up twenty times after the loss of a loved one and it can be several days or weeks before it comes down.
Sadness is real and normal, but prolonged sadness and depression can weaken your immune system and leave you vulnerable to viruses.
Fear of the future after a loss can not only suppress your immune system, it can render you incapable of making important decisions. It can cause you to mistrust or lash out at others. It can interfere with your work, which can damage your career health, self-esteem health, and financial health over time.
A sense of shame related to the death of the loved one can cause you to withdraw from other relationships. I’ve especially seen this in parents who have lost children. Self-blame, second-guessing, and guilt run roughshod over these parents.
Buried emotions don’t disappear; they manifest in your body through sickness, often in your colon. If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I would encourage you to think back to when you first discovered it: what traumas or unforgiveness occurred around that time?
Feelings are normal; they are part of being human. Unpleasant feelings are just as valid as pleasant feelings. We must never stuff them or deny them or they will eventually explode in ways you can’t always predict. At the same time, we can’t allow ourselves to dwell in them. That’s why you must allow yourself to walk through every stage of the process of grieving, but not pitch a tent in any of them. Each stage serves a purpose, but then it goes away.
You Need To Cry
Crying is a release valve for the soul that is built into the body. It’s a shame that generations of men (present company included) were taught that it’s unmanly to cry. King David was one of the most rugged warriors in history, and yet he wrote dozens of songs about his tears. He understood the place crying has in the process of healing. We all need to make effective use of this gift of God in releasing our pain.
Let It Go
If you are struggling with grief over the loss of a loved one, a career change, a disappointment, a move, or some other life-altering transition, I want you to feel free to release it. We have too much bottled up in our souls and it is manifests in our bodies.
I mentioned moving because even good changes require a process of letting go and saying goodbye. Grieving should be as natural as going to the bathroom every day, and for the same reason: to properly dispose of the past. Your soul is going to grieve one way or the other anyway; you might as well let it happen naturally and in a healthy process.
I bet you can think of someone right now who is going through a difficult life transition – either the death of a loved one or a similar trauma. Take a few seconds to share this article on your favorite social media channel. You don’t necessarily have to tag them in it, but just let them know that this is out here. They might find the freedom they need to release some pain from their lives. Thank you for helping me get the word out.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas