Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
After a traumatic loss, a grief expert discovers 7 techniques for setting grief free from the body and moving toward comfort
After a sudden and traumatic loss a few years ago, my grief and shock first expressed themselves through my body: I couldn’t stop shuddering. This shaking was so bad that even once I could sleep again, it woke me at night. So I didn’t need bestselling books like Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s renowned The Body Keeps Score to know that both trauma and grief invade the body and can be rather stubborn about leaving.
Like Van Der Kolk, most counselors agree that grief needs expression. That’s true even for grief caused by losses that others might not recognize or the less-easily categorized hits of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Swallowing or denying the pain of grief can make it fester inside, erupting later in ways ranging from physical ailments to greater difficulty coping with other losses.
But I’ve been dealing with and writing about grief long enough now to have found several solutions—which is good, since my training as a certified Grief Educator has taught me what works for one person might not for another. Consider these seven techniques, many backed by science, for setting grief free and moving toward comfort.
1. Go ahead and cry
It’s our instinctive reaction to loss because it improves our brain chemistry, releasing endorphins as natural painkillers and lowering the stress chemical cortisol. You can set aside time when you won’t be disturbed — a crying date with your heart — or simply allow yourself to stop what you’re doing, find privacy if you crave it, and give in to nature’s built-in method for releasing both grief and the endorphins that can help us eventually feel better.
2. Try this breath meditation
Mindful and even imaginative breathing can not only calm you but lighten your grief. As you exhale, imagine your lungs drawing the grief, along with carbon dioxide, from your bones, muscles, and blood to expel it. Picture it leaving through your lips as a dark fog. Then, as you inhale, visualize your lungs pulling love and light from the sky and taking them deep inside to be absorbed. You can use this technique anytime, anywhere, even in public.
3. Take your feet on a grief walk
Long walks or runs in quiet surroundings—a park, waterside trail, the woods, even a local track—use rhythmic movement to soothe your nervous system and help dispel stress hormones. After my loss, I walked and ran hundreds of miles, driven by an impulse to run away from an inescapable truth. Often, I hung my head or pulled a hoodie around it so I could be mesmerized by the ground streaming past under my feet. Whether I cried along the way or not, this physical activity released endorphins, and the movement helped satisfy the flight aspect of my “fight or flight” stress response and thus tame cortisol— not unlike my involuntary, but less pleasant, trembling. Plus, the meditative time alone surfaced sweet memories of my loved one for me to hold onto and cherish. Other rhythmic physical activities, from chopping wood to swimming or cycling, can have the same effect. Articles and entire books have been written about how physical activity got their authors through loss. It might help you, too.
4. Shift grief to the surface of your body instead
Memorial tattoos have become popular recently as a reminder of both loss and the love behind it. Such a tattoo helped me soothe an intense craving to have my huge loss show on the outside as well, a scar that acknowledged the wound in my heart. Popular tattoo choices include a snatch of a loved one’s handwriting, a meaningful symbol such as a heart or butterfly, or an image from a shared memory (a palm tree from a special vacation, for instance).
If a tattoo’s not your thing, never fear — there are many other ways to move feelings of grief from inside your body to its surface. Memorial jewelry is one, from rings or bracelets engraved with a beloved’s name to pendants made with a bit of their ashes. Special T-shirts or hats, perhaps with encouraging slogans or the semicolon many use to remind themselves that life goes on, can acknowledge losses that range from a lost job to a failed relationship. Or bring nontoxic paints or colorful shower gels into the bathtub. Paint or splatter the colors of your grief on your skin before gently washing those pain marks away.
5. Smash or rip something you can dispense with
There’s a reason grieving people in traditional cultures sing laments and rip their garments or hair — it helps to express the ripping sensations inside. Consider ripping an old sheet or T-shirt to shreds, stomp a series of aluminum cans, throw water balloons at an exterior wall, or bust a few pieces of thrift-shop china. (Take safety precautions with that one.) Twice I bought eggs by the dozen to smash, flinging them, one after another, at a boulder in my yard. Before throwing them, I used a Sharpie to label each with words that represented all I had lost, such as my sweetheart’s smile, his embrace, his sense of humor. Breaking those eggs became a low-cost but cathartic way to express the anger that so often lurks beside grief and helped keep the cracks in my heart from splitting wider.
6. Create and tend a memorial garden plot
Pour the grief in your body out into the soil by digging and sowing, watering — with tears if need be — and pulling weeds in great yanks that reflect the loss so rudely yanked from your life. In addition to being a physical release, gardening offers a sense of control, while any plants you nurture can remind you of the beauty that still remains in your world. For instance, one of my friends created a flower garden in honor of her mother and now spends much time there, feeling comforted and close to her love.
7. Embody your grief in mindful movement
Although you may be least likely to try this, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Put on some gentle music, draw the blinds, close your eyes, tell your self-consciousness to get lost, and let your body move to the shape of your grief. You might start by swaying, holding yourself, or curling into a ball with your arms over your head. Listen to what your limbs and your heart want to do. Follow those whims.
If your grief is heavy, let your upper body hang and sway from your waist, or stomp around like a troll. To release hidden anger, throw your arms wide, pump clenched fists like pistons, kick your feet, beat a pillow, or shake your head “no” until your hair flies. Rock yourself on the floor, spin aimlessly, or wander the room in the confusion of grief. If your pain is stuck deep inside, shape your hands into claws and mime dredging it up from the floor, out of the air, or from within your own abdomen to free it. Wail or make guttural sounds, if it helps (and it will).
This sort of anything-goes movement and sound was so invaluable to my own healing that I continue to practice it even today.
It always leaves me feeling lighter. If it appeals to you, too, you might also explore a grief yoga class or the various movement forms often called conscious dance. The permission to move, along with supportive leaders to offer examples or guidance, can be life changing.
If I’ve learned anything about grief, it’s that action is always better than inaction — which my trembling body knew before my mind even grasped what had happened. In fact, it’s safe to say the body not only keeps score but wants to express our emotions with actions. Do your own body a favor by trying a few of the methods above for releasing your grief. Be prepared to need such expression again and again. You’re not expelling a germ; you’re tending an organ — your heart. If you become a wise partner in helping your body work through losses it undoubtedly feels, it’s less likely to ambush you later with pain or illness or even uncontrolled shaking that represents a mute cry for help.
References: Van Der Kolk, Bessel, M.D. The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014
You may also enjoy reading The Courageous Art of Supporting Someone in Grief (At Any Age) by Angie Lucas