Grief: it's not in my head it's in my body

I'm a slow learner

When my brother died recently, I was surprised to be feeling pain and tension in my body and to feel so exhausted. I'd expected it to affect my thoughts and my emotions but not my body! This also happened to me 7 years ago when my husband died. Then, I was new to craniosacral therapy (CST) and I had much to learn from my therapist. She said my body felt the same as someone who had just had major surgery. The grief was not all in my head - it was in my nervous system. How could I forget that?!

 Grief as a physical presence

To illustrate for you the kinds of feelings that grief can bring to a body, here's a commentary of what I was experiencing and feeling over the course of an hour in the middle of the night. At first, there was a sharp pain running up and down my back on the left side. Then I felt what seemed like a big lump in the centre of my chest - a heart of darkness, so filled with fear it was. It was pushing down like a line of football players on my diaphragm. It was a fist of anger, frustration, resistance against my diaphragm. And my diaphragm was a protector, like a mother letting her child rail against her, strong enough to bear the force of the pushing. I noticed a tingling, an itchiness, in my left nostril and sinus. Eventually, I began to feel an expansion in my chest, like I was uncurling from a fetal position and stretching out. Suddenly, there was a white electric ball between the front lower left two ribs. At first it was the size of a tennis ball, then it diminished to a squash ball, then a marble. And the heat! It was releasing so much heat. Then it was the size of a bebe, a ball bearing, and moving within my diaphragm across to the left flank. Finally, it dissolved into waves of energy that travelled through my pelvis and out through my toes. 

What was going on?

In a way, it's like I was a witness watching a spectacular dance that was happening within my body. You may recognize some of these sensations if you have had a CST treatment. For me, in my body at this time, the sensations of grief centred around my heart. The energy of the grief was intense, yet I was not aware of it as painful. At first, the energy was contained in my cardiac plexus, which is a junction of the sympathetic nervous system and tightening my pericardium, the fascial covering around my heart. It was radiating downward against the diaphragm, yet the diaphragm itself didn't feel nervous activation. The emotions I was experiencing - fear, anger, frustration - were expressions of the grief and trapped in the tissues in that area of my body. It's possible they may have been trapped in these tissues from a previous loss or grief. That can certainly happen, though I wasn't having any memories. I experienced a sense of detachment. As the dance evolved, the muscles and fascia of my chest released their tension and I felt the relief of expansion, of uncurling. I don't know what the tingling in my nose and sinuses was about. The ball of electrical energy in the muscles between my ribs diminished in size as I acknowledged its presence, and eventually became very small as it released its energy as heat. It find it amusing that it rolled across the transverse diaphragm and dissipated in waves down my leg. All that drama in my chest became peaceful waves moving rhythmically down my leg. Reminds me of the poem about the world ending not with a bang but a whimper!

Grief is a process

What I have described was an event in a series of bodily releases of grief. More recently, I've had a CST treatment that focused on the psoas and iliacus muscles in my hips, which resulted in vibration and tightness radiating into my thighs. The sympathetic nervous system is the fight-or-flight mechanism, so it makes sense that my running muscles would be activated. It reminds me of my first walk after my dog died many years ago. I went out alone the next morning on our usual route, and noticed myself marching through the underbrush raising my knees high and with such force! I was discharging the emotions, the heartbreak, the desolation of being alone on my walks now.

Where is grief?

I've treated clients who were experiencing loss and asked them where they felt the grief. One said in her forehead. Another felt it in the lower abdomen. It is individual, and it may show up in a new area after one set of tissues has allowed the energy to move on. I am amazed by my body, and by the awareness that I've learned through CST.

If you are experiencing a loss or series of losses, and you are ready to process and begin to let go of the trauma, craniosacral therapy is a safe and supportive approach to grieving.