Health and wellbeing during bereavement

When someone you love dies, your whole world can be turned upside down and you may even question everything you formerly believed in. What seemed important before your loss may no longer feel like a priority. This may include looking after your health and wellbeing by eating well, getting enough sleep, monitoring alcohol intake, exercise etc. Suddenly none of these things seem to matter as much.

It can be particularly hard to look after yourself when shock is involved as this can have a monumental effect on your body. Shaking, nausea, increased heart rate and feeling faint are all common reactions that can go on for days or even weeks after someone dies. This can make it incredibly hard to eat or sleep. Shock is fundamentally a protective mechanism that stops you from having to deal with the full pain of the emotional trauma you are experiencing. The physical symptoms can temporarily distract from this, at least some of the time.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the restlessness, the yawning…” CS Lewis

Eventually, these extreme physical symptoms should pass but until then all you can really do is try to eat whatever you feel you can manage and not worry too much about whether it’s healthy or not. Limit coffee as your adrenals and nervous system will be working overtime so caffeine won’t be helpful. Alcohol is generally best avoided as it can disrupt sleep which you will currently need more than ever as sleep is when the body does its repair work. Sleep is also when we can start to process emotionally what has happened to us.

Whilst some people experience appetite loss and inability to sleep, others find the opposite. The bottom line is everyone’s response to grief is different.

Here’s my general advice for looking after your health and wellbeing at this difficult and challenging time.

EATING

If you’re lucky, some kind friends and neighbours may bring you meals. If anyone asks you what can they do to help when they hear of your loss – say this. You probably won’t feel like making meals initially or even shopping so this is about the best thing anyone can do to help to begin with. I know early in bereavement I couldn’t eat very much at all, let alone cook, but when someone made a meal, I felt (relatively) better physically and emotionally afterwards. Blood sugar balance is important for mood and you don’t want to feel worse than you need to so it’s vital not to go too long without eating. Stress uses up nutrients – and grief is very stressful…

Eventually you will need to feed yourself, and others too if you have a family, but again (and I say this as a Nutritional Therapist who is all about healthy lifestyle) it’s fine to eat what you feel like and whatever is easiest at this stage. There were days where I had planned to cook something only to feel unable to do so when it came to making the effort. That’s completely okay and if you end up having more takeaways (or chocolate) than usual, don’t worry about it.

In time, you may find it helpful, both physically and mentally, to get into a routine again regarding eating a healthy and balanced diet because frankly you will feel better for doing so. The stress of grief can increase inflammation in the body, affect your immune system, your digestion and energy levels amongst other things, so the better your diet the stronger you will be physically and, viewed holistically, that in turn will have an effect on your emotional wellbeing. And visa versa…

It is vital not to be in denial about your grief, unbearably painful as it can be. That said, there will be times, especially in early grief, when you will naturally retreat into denial in order to take a necessary break from the pain and reality of what has happened to you. This is considered a normal stage of grief. However, if ultimately we don’t fully process an emotional experience or trauma or we try to suppress it in some way, our body may “express” it for us through pain, illness or disease.

SUPPLEMENTS

In view of the effects of grief and stress on our immune, nervous and digestive systems, a good quality multi vitamin and mineral supplement together with a probiotic can be viewed as valuable back up. As a Nutritional Therapist, I was able to find helpful supplements for aiding sleep and for calming my nervous system (anxiety being common in grief and trauma). There are supplements too that can help with mild to moderate depression and which research has shown are as effective as anti depressants but without the side effects. Studies have shown serotonin can be depleted during bereavement. (It is recommended you seek the advice of a registered nutritional therapist for a tailor made supplement programme).

EXERCISE

There are now many studies that show walking and being in nature help with grief as well as emotional wellbeing generally. Going for walks with family members and friends has helped me considerably. For others it might be running or going back to the gym so just choose anything that makes you feel (relatively) good. Now is not the time to do a form of exercise you don’t really enjoy or that feels like too much of an effort. I find online ‘yoga for grief’ sessions very calming and mood boosting. Something like that is great if you don’t feel up to going to a class yet.

SLEEP

Not being able to sleep when you’re grieving can feel like additional torture and you can go to dark places at 3am or find you get unpleasant adrenaline rushes when you wake suddenly. You may be extremely sleep deprived for the first few weeks but once the shock recedes somewhat and your nervous system calms this should hopefully improve, albeit gradually. Supplements can help here (see above) and you could also try a sleep meditation. One of the simplest techniques I found that surprisingly worked is to count slowly back from 100. You could also try the 4-7-8 technique (breathe in for 4, hold for 7 and breathe out slowly through the mouth for 8) which will calm your nervous system if you’re feeling anxious.

ADDITIONAL SUPPORT

Although it’s not a question of “moving on”, “recovering” or “getting back to normal” when you have lost someone very close to you, finding support can help you to learn to live with and accept your loss. You may find bereavement counselling helpful or you could try Reiki, writing a journal, EFT, EMDR, spiritual support or simply talking about your loss to close friends and family. It is so important to begin to fully process what has happened to you and to get specific help if you think you may have PTSD or if your grief is prolonged or complicated. There are lots of books on grief that may make you feel you’re not alone in what you’re feeling (grief can seem lonely sometimes) and there are many great organisations like The Good Grief Trust, The Compassionate Friends, Cruse Bereavement Care etc which all provide information, helplines, counselling or groups. Find whatever makes your grief more bearable and just get through one day at a time.

(Always consult your GP if you are unable to cope or suffer physical symptoms you feel concerned about.)

Looking after your health and wellbeing won’t bring back the person you have so sadly lost but it can help you feel more able to cope with your grief. There will still be bad days and less bad days and we will miss them forever but ultimately, our loved ones would want us to look after ourselves and find as much joy and purpose as we can in our lives.

If you are bereaved and feel you might benefit from nutritional therapy and/or wellbeing coaching please contact me vanessa@wellbeingandnutrition.co.uk (Skype consultations are available)