By Larry Malerba, DO, DHt – Aside from the many self-inflicted and medically induced causes of illness such as smoking, poor nutrition, alcohol and drug abuse, pharmaceutical side effects, allopathic suppression, and surgeries gone awry, perhaps the most common “natural” cause of chronic illness is unresolved grief.
Grief is natural in the sense that everyone is faced with the issue at some point in his or her life. It is a normal human response, which when handled effectively should lead to psycho-spiritual growth and greater awareness.
The problem is that handling grief is easier said than done. The successful processing of grief is a function of numerous factors, including one’s psychological maturity and understanding of the nature and purpose of grief and loss. Other factors include the degree of emotional support from friends and family, one’s own personal state of physical/emotional/spiritual health and well-being, and our prevailing cultural attitudes toward grief.
When the grieving process is short-circuited and grief is not allowed to have its way it can lead to health issues as varied as the individuals that it afflicts. Unprocessed grief is commonly a source of anxiety, irritability, depression, other emotional disturbances, and even mania and psychosis. Conversely, it is quite common for grief to become somaticized. The classic symptom of difficulty swallowing with sensation of a lump (“globus hystericus”) is literally a somaticization of emotion that has become stuck in the throat — an obvious body metaphor for unexpressed feelings and unshed tears.
Likewise, grief can become lodged in the neck and back as muscle tension, in the chest as a cough or bronchitis, in the gut as nausea or intestinal cramps, or in the head as tension headaches or migraines. When grief is particularly traumatic as in the death of a child, or when a person’s health is already compromised, it is not unusual to see somatic manifestations on a deeper level. Thus, grief can lead to rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, and even heart disease. Again, each manifestation can be as unique as the vital force of the person struggling with grief.
The sources of grief are varied and each situation is unique in the sense that grief is always in the eye of the beholder. The loss of one person’s pet can be just as devastating as the loss of another person’s parent. We tend to equate grief with the death of a friend or loved one, but it can just as easily result from broken relationships, divorce, job loss, or a personal perception of failure. There are no rules; each instance of grief is a subjective experience that must be taken at face value if it is to be respected and handled compassionately by those attempting to comfort and assist the grieving individual.
I recently saw a woman in her 50s who sought help for her depression and chronic intestinal problems. Upon inquiring as to the source of her depression, she said that it was from not having fulfilled her dream of being the mother of a large number of children. When I suggested to her that the so-called depression could more accurately be characterized as unresolved grief, I could see her mind light up as a look of realization came across her face. The healing process had begun the moment she came to a new understanding of her condition. In the course of working with her over the next few months, years of depression and digestive disturbances began to fade into the distance as she gave herself permission to grieve the family that she knew she would never have.
Although individual responses to grief are unique and diverse, my own medical experience has taught me that there are a number of common response patterns or stereotypes, if you will, that can be identified. One such pattern is that of the distraught person who repeatedly cries and sobs for prolonged periods of time, for days, weeks, or even months on end, with no relief in sight. This type of “hysterical” grief can be devastating and exhausting. The polar opposite pattern is represented by the individual who vows to stay strong, shows no “weakness,” and sheds not a tear for months or even years after the original painful loss that caused the grief. These individuals seek to quickly put their grief “behind them,” not realizing that there is no free lunch and that they will someday be forced to deal with it, whether it be in the form of an emotional or physical crisis.
Grieving children commonly exhibit headaches or stomachaches that lead to calls home from the school nurse. Some individuals become worn down by their grief and their emotional state begins to resemble that of a person suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, with its attendant malaise, emotional indifference, and lack of motivation. Some people become stuck in anger, blaming themselves and/or others for their loss. For such individuals, anger is usually a defensive form of denial that protects them from the more painful underlying feelings of grief. Other unfortunate individuals can be thrown into an existential crisis, questioning their very existence, losing their faith in something greater than themselves, and even losing their will to live.
While antidepressants, anxiolytics, and/or sleep aids may temporarily dull symptoms, they will not help to resolve the underlying issues of grief. In fact, pharmaceuticals will tend to enable the person to avoid emotions that must sooner or later be faced. The longer grief is postponed, the more likely it will contribute to chronic disease. The American obsession with productivity is not conducive to the successful processing of grief since the demands of the workplace often take precedence over issues of mental health. There is no set timetable for grief to run its course, and there is no statute of limitations. Fortunately, there are a variety of non-pharmaceutical approaches that can enhance the healing process.
First and foremost, patience, kindness, love, and understanding are prerequisites for a successful outcome. Most people simply need someone to listen to them. Secondly, the person affected by grief must come to understand that grief is a normal and necessary function of the human psyche, and the needs of the psyche will not be denied. Grief must be felt and experienced to the extent necessary to bring about a resolution, and this differs from one person to the next depending upon who that person is and the nature of the loss involved. For somaticized grief, it can be as simple as asking patients to trust their instincts and to name what it is that they believe is the real source of their ostensibly physical illness. Most people intuitively know the answer. It can be surprising how a person will respond when questioned and, frequently, the simple act of verbalizing one’s personal truth will be enough to initiate the healing process.
Good old fashioned counseling or psychotherapy can be invaluable in situations of grief, but for more stubborn cases that persist or that have become somaticized, there are additional methods that can be employed to great benefit. Various forms of bodywork can be particularly helpful in cases that manifest as chronic headaches, neck or back pain. Most massage therapists can relate stories of clients who finally relaxed, “let go,” and had a therapeutic emotional meltdown right there on the massage table. Such “healing crises” are cathartic events that can help break the logjam of unexpressed grief.
Dreams can be very important, especially for those who are grieving the death of loved ones. It is quite common for the deceased to pay a visit to surviving friends and family in their dreams. Sometimes the deceased brings a crucial piece of information that can help the living to understand the circumstances surrounding his or her death. And sometimes departed loved ones seek to reassure survivors that they are doing fine on the other side. To dismiss such an event as just a dream is a serious mistake and a lost opportunity to communicate with the departed. The ingrained materialistic outlook of American culture is a strong deterrent to recognizing that such dreams can assist in the resolution of grief and may also lead to spiritual growth.
When all else fails, a difficult and unresponsive case of grief will often respond quite nicely to a well-chosen homeopathic medicine. Some of the patterns of grief described above correspond to homeopathic medicines that are capable of releasing one from the grips of grief and its effects. It is best to consult a qualified homeopathic practitioner when dealing with long-standing grief.
Many of the lessons that I have learned regarding grief are by virtue of the patients that I have had the privilege to assist in the grieving process over the years. Our own friends, family, and patients can teach us a great deal about grief, an issue that often lies at the center of health, illness, life, and death.
Additional Information for the Homeopathic Management of Grief:
Dr. Ajit Singh, Grief and Its Homeopathic Approach, Homeopathic Journal, Vol 2, Issue 7, May 2009, Homeorizon.com
Larry Malerba, DO, DHt is a physician and educator whose mission is to build bridges between holistic healing, conventional medicine, and spirituality. He is the author of Metaphysics & Medicine: Restoring Freedom of Thought to the Art and Science of Healing and Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care. He writes for Huffington Post, Natural News, and the American Holistic Medical Association. Dr. Malerba is board certified in Homeotherapeutics, is Clinical Assistant Professor at New York Medical College, and past president of the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland. Website: SpiritScienceHealing.com