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The Physical Pain Of Grief

February 21, 2018

It has been over three years since I first experienced grief at its most heightened level. I had experienced grief before with the passing of my grandmother, a close friend, and extended family. But when my own child died and I held his body in my arms, I was confronted with a grief that I’d never felt so purely before. I felt it physically. Not only because my body was in pain from delivering our silent baby, but from grief. Physical pain caused by grief.

Related: How Active Grieving Saved Me from More Pain

I had always believed that grief was an emotion. That it was psychological. But on that day, I felt it at a physical level. I have endured a lot of physical pain in my life, usually treated with pharmaceuticals I could swallow or a through an IV. But this pain, grief pain, had no agent of relief. No prescription I could fill, no bottle of pills I could buy at the grocery store. If someone had shown me a pain chart at the hospital and asked what I was feeling, I’d look at the little faces and say it was over 10. But no one did, and no one could have done anything to make it better anyway.

That initial pain was incredible, like a knife to the heart they say, and it’s true. It lasted a very long time. At first, it was 24 hours a day. I’d wake up with tears in my eyes even before I was fully conscious. I prayed that it would improve, even just slightly. In time, it did. Slowly, slowly, I’d go a few minutes without the physical pain. I even smiled and laughed here and there. Little by little, day by day it improved. I was grateful.

After three years, a few days now pass between these bouts of grief pains. The grief is still there, always carried in my heart, carried in my cells. It is there under my skin no matter what I’m doing, saying, or thinking about it. But, the physical pain of grief isn’t.

Until. Until I’m doing some completely ordinary task and suddenly there it is. The grief pain. It starts as a wave building at the top of my head, it moves slowly through my neck, shoulders, stomach, hips, legs to my feet. It’s a physical sensation that travels rapidly from head to toes. The pain seizes me. It’s usually localized in between my eyes and my heart, a tightening, an ache. I begin to hold my breath and then try to take as many slow breaths as I can. My chest heaves as my stomach knots. Tears flow. My hands sometimes shake. I usually shut my eyes tight and take as many deep breaths as I can, just as I would if I were injured in an accident, having a contraction, or cut myself with a knife. The same exact pain, and the same bodily reaction. In this case, these physical, bodily feelings are caused by grief.

Related: On Deep Pain and Deep Emotions

Sometimes this physical pain emerges because of a trigger: a story I read, a smell, or a picture that reminds me of my child’s death. Sometimes it’s because of no reason at all.

This grief pain usually lasts several minutes before my heart rate slows, my breathing slows, and my hands steady. Once it has passed, I’m exhausted, tired from the pain that just swept through me. I want to sleep, rest, recover. At this point in my journey, I can often recover after a short cat nap, or feel completely healthy the next day after a good night’s sleep. I understand now that the pain will subside in time and life will continue.

It’s important to allow those moments of rest, quiet and self-care after a bout of grief pain. Hot baths, a quick yoga session, and sleep are what help me recover from the pain these days. Knowing this, I am prepared when it happens. There may not be a pill I can swallow to take the edge off my grief pain, but I can now withstand it and know that I will be okay.

Photo by: Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash

  • Tara Rigg

    Tara Rigg writes about the complexities, joys, and misunderstanding that surround infertility and grief. Her son, Beau, was stillborn in 2014. She gratefully breathes in the mountain air surrounding her home in Bozeman, MT where she lives with her husband and three young daughters. Find more at


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