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When Grief Gets Physical: Dealing with Physical Grief Symptoms

When Grief Gets Physical: Dealing with Physical Grief Symptoms

By Litsa Williams

Of all the unimaginable aspects of grief, there is one thing we hear people say time and again that they really didn’t expect: physical grief symptoms. Though they may be surprised by the intensity or type of emotions they experience, they at least saw them coming. Physical responses, on the other hand, are an unanticipated and unwanted bonus.

In grief, the tendency to interpret physical symptoms as threatening may be increased. Just ask Google about the billions of searches dedicated to phrases like “I have a toothache, am I dying?” In the past, a headache was a headache, but after the devastating loss of a loved one, you are all-to-familiar with the reality that life can turn on a dime.

Suddenly that headache is clearly a sign of something terrible. This distress around physical grief symptoms often emerges with thoughts like:

In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the more common physical grief symptoms. We want to normalize these somatic experiences and encourage you NOT TO PANIC if you experience them. Things like fatigue, aches, pains, changes in appetite, etc are normal in acute grief. 

That said, we are not doctors and your health is very specific to you. So, we do recommend you discuss with your doctor any symptoms that you find concerning. Especially symptoms that are ongoing; that don’t get better with time; or which you feel are impacting your day-to-day functioning. Not only can your doctor rule out any underlying causes, but they may also be able to help you make a plan for managing your physical discomforts.  

Physical Symptoms of Grief


You feel exhausted all the time.  You feel run down. You are always ready for a nap. Ironically, when you try to sleep you may not be able to, only making your fatigue worse.   Or maybe you’re getting plenty of sleep and still feeling fatigued, due to the constant emotional strain of grief.

Tips: When you’re struggling with fatigue, sleep is a good place to start but it isn’t the only factor.  If you haven’t already, check out some of our tips for grief and getting a good night’s sleep.   Some of the other items on this list can also help with combating fatigue.

Aches and pains

It is not uncommon for people to experience generalized muscle aches in grief, sometimes so severe it feels like the flu! You are experiencing the weight of constant stress, you are fatigued, you may not be sleeping, you’re body is tense.  Research has even found that grief  “aggravates” symptoms of physical pain in older adults.

Tips: Focus on body relaxation. Things like meditation, getting a massage, and stretching can sometimes be helpful.  And who doesn’t need an excuse for a massage! If you can’t afford a massage, check to see if there is a local massage school in your area – they often need practice clients so you can get a massage for a deep discount or free.  

If you are struggling with chronic pain that you feel may be exacerbated by your loss, talk to a pain management specialist. Be aware of the risks of “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol when physical pain is increased, and consider looking into alternative therapies, like acupuncture, biofeedback, and talking to a therapist.

Tightness in the chest, shortness of breath

This is a symptom that can be associated with cardiac issues, so definitely a reason to talk to your doctor. That said, a more generalized sense of tightness or shortness of breath may be the result of anxiety.  

Tips: Look into tips for coping with anxiety in grief, as well as some general relaxation approaches like meditation and deep breathing.  Breathing techniques can be helpful and calming not just with tightness and shortness of breath, but in many difficult and stressful situations.  Lastly, check out our post on coping with grief triggers.


Yes, this is a type of ache/pain, but it is a very specific and very common type. Stress is the most common source of headaches and, as you well know if you’re reading this, grief is one, huge, immense, life-encompassing stressor.  

Tips: There are a lot of lists out there for managing tension headaches, though many only scratch the surface (think cool compresses and ibuprofen).  This list goes a bit deeper than some we’ve seen and might be a good place to start.


Grievers often tell us, “It feels like I can’t remember anything!” From losing keys to forgetting to pick kids up from daycare, to missing meetings or appointments, and on and on, forgetfulness can start to feel like a new way of life.  

Try not to get too worried.  For most people, this slowly improves with time.  If you don’t see this improving, talk to your doctor to make sure nothing else is going on!

Tips: Use the simple tools at your disposal: to-do lists, phone alerts/reminders, phone calendars with alerts (that you can set a day or week in advance, so you aren’t getting the first reminder 5 minutes before!).  

Create an “important stuff” spot in your house – it doesn’t have to be organized, but if it is something really important at least you know what general area it is in.  Try to keep a sense of humor – it is hard to laugh at yourself when you get to the grocery store without your purse, when you’re emotionally teetering and about to burst into tears, but it can help if you can muster it. 

Inability to focus

You may be seeing a connection here. It can feel impossible to focus on anything when you are under stress, distracted and forgetful, or struggling with fatigue or headaches.

You may find yourself totally zoning out in meetings, in class, in conversations, and almost anywhere else. Sometimes you may be distracted by memories of your loved one or thinking about life stressors that have come with the loss. 

Tips: Improving focus can be tough, even when grief isn’t involved.  That said, check out our article, Grief and Concentration: 8 Tips for Coping With an Inability to Focus

Appetite changes or digestive issues

Maybe you have only eaten 2 pieces of toast all week. Maybe you stopped at McDonald’s three times yesterday.  Whether it is significant increases or decreases, changes in appetite are normal with grief and many other life stressors.  Even if you’re appetite has stayed the same you may experience feelings of nausea or other digestive issues that can come with grief and stress.

Tips: Food is connected to both physical and emotional health, so getting this in check can be helpful.  If you are struggling with eating enough, focus on at least making sure your basic nutritional needs met.  A healthy smoothie or soup with a good balance of fats, proteins, and carbs can go a long way in helping you get what you need.  

We have a post here from a wellness coach on tips for trying to eat healthy, even when you have no motivation.  If you are concerned because you’re eating more or less healthy than you are accustomed, you’re not alone.  This is a common issue in emotionally difficult times and we have a post on that too!

Getting sick more often

There is plenty of research showing that stress in general, and grief specifically, can take a toll on the immune system. Research has also shown this impact on the immune system is most significant in older adults who are grieving. 

Tips: Follow suggestions for many of the other physical grief symptoms mentioned above. Improving sleep, diet, and managing stress can all help in lowering your risk of getting sick.  In addition, you can talk to your doctor about nutrition and supplements that help with boosting your immune system.

If you are looking for some general tips on taking care of yourself, don’t miss Eleanor’s epic list of 64 self-care tips.

By Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C Eleanor is a Program Director and Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Eleanor lives in Maryland and received a Master's in Social Work.

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