Image source: Modern Widows ClubImpact Report 2011–2020.

Grief is a natural response to loss, and it can manifest in different ways. The emotional and psychological impact of grief is well-documented, but what is less well-known is how grief can affect our physical health. Research has shown that the “body keeps score” of grief, and that unresolved grief can lead to illness and disease. In this article, we will explore how grief can impact our bodies and what we can do to promote healing.

The connection between grief and physical health is not new. In ancient Greek medicine, physicians believed that grief could cause physical illnesses. In the modern era, medical researchers have conducted studies to explore this link. They have found that grief can lead to a weakened immune system, which can make us more susceptible to illness and disease. This is because stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are released during times of emotional stress, can suppress the immune system.

Moreover, grief can cause inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is linked to a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Inflammation occurs when the body’s immune system responds to injury, infection, or emotional stress. In the case of grief, the emotional stress triggers a response that can lead to chronic inflammation.

Another way grief can affect our physical health is through sleep disruption. Grieving can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleep is crucial for our bodies to repair and regenerate. Chronic sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system, increase inflammation, and lead to a range of health problems.

What the Research Says

We know that the loss of our wife was an incredibly stressful event. For some who suffered through a long disease process, the stress started long before the actual loss. And the stress continues for many years after the loss.

Just how much impact does the loss of a spouse have on a widower? Losing a spouse is the number one most stressful life event, this according to research by Holmes & Rahe, and their creation of their assessment and Social Readjustment Scale.

The loss of a spouse tips the scales at 100 stress points, exceeding ALL other hurts and losses. The stress of spousal loss was measured to be more than the number two live event stressor, Divorce at 73 points.

When a widower faces the loss of their spouse, it is not just the stress from the direct loss that is realized, but many additional challenges that manifest, a set of compound losses and compound grief, which can dramatically add up.

Many widowers in their grief struggle with career priorities, sometimes leading to job change or even loss, adding 47 points. The loss of a late wife’s income can pile on an additional 38 points. A move and major change in living conditions (25), a loss of social activities (18), a disruption in sleeping habits (16) and altered eating habits (15) all compound.

According to the research, combining the death of a spouse, with downstream compound losses, an accumulation of stressors can occur, leading to impacts in wellness and eventually disease for the widower.

In a prior healthy individual, when the stressors accumulate to over 150 points, the chance of an illness increases 50% in two years. Worse, when the stressors accumulate to 300 points or more, there is an 80% chance of experiencing a stress-induced health breakdown.

Many researchers (e.g., Lee & DeMaris, 2007) have documented widowhood effects confirming the increased mortality risk, a rise in disability and functional limitations, as well as, to no surprise, an increase in depressive symptoms.

Consistently, the effects of losing a spouse are larger for widowers than widows. Worse outcomes for men often occur, because their wife has been their “primary source of social support” (Sullivan, 2014). We rely on the women in our lives for our social lives, our care and our well being. Without our partner, it is not uncommon to isolate, drop any sense of nutrition and self-care, abuse substances, and suffer from depression.

The research is clear. Trauma and stress from the loss of your spouse can impact wellness, compounding, accumulate and manifesting into your own chronic illnesses.

My Own Health Challenges

Before my wife passed, I had let my health diminish, ballooning to 60 pounds overweight and drinking excessively. I couldn’t remember the last time I went to a doctor. Continuing on that path, I probably wouldn’t be around in another few years.

When my wife passed away I vowed to get my health optimized, so that I could be around to take care of my kids. I gained my sobriety, dropped the weight, exercised at least once if not twice each day, and within a year or two looked years younger.

However, the body keeps score, and although I was the picture of health on the outside, I was suffering from severe atherosclerosis. Luckily my partner pressured me to grab a regular checkup. This led to some additional testing, just to be sure my family history and prior lifestyle and loss stressors hadn’t had an impact. Fortunately I was proactive to assure wellness, but unfortunately, the test results were not good, and a couple of weeks ago I received quadruple bypass surgery.

Healing Your Body on Grief

So, what can we do to promote healing from grief and reduce the risk of physical illness and disease? One of the most important things we can do is to acknowledge and process our grief. This means allowing ourselves to feel the pain and sadness that comes with loss. It also means finding healthy ways to express and cope with our emotions. This can include talking with a therapist, joining a support group, or engaging in activities that bring us joy and comfort. Remember that anything not processed can manifest in your body as disease and illness.

Another important step is to prioritize self-care. This means getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation and stress relief. It also means being patient with ourselves and allowing ourselves the time and space to heal. And please, go to the doctor and proactively test, knowing that grief has absolutely had an impact, even though the effects may be hidden.

In conclusion, grief can have a profound impact on our physical health, and I am living proof of this, despite best efforts to elevate beyond. By acknowledging and processing our grief and prioritizing self-care, we can promote healing and reduce the risk of physical illness and disease. And through awareness we can proactively understand that grief has had an impact and proactively test to be sure we don’t miss the impacts.

With the right support, intervention and self-care, we can emerge from grief stronger and more resilient than before.

Holmes & Rahe, and the Social Readjustment Scale – Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). Journal of psychosomatic research.

Created in collaboration with ChatGPT

The Body Keeps Score

Healing can come, if we allow ourselves to feel,

If we let out the pain, and let time begin to heal.

With patience and self-care, we can ease our troubled mind,

And the body’s score from grief, we’ll start to leave behind.