Grief: The Body Keeps the Score in the Hips
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
Yesterday, my only and younger brother died from an aggressive cancer that was only found a month before. His name was Pete and he was 53 years old. Our relationship was complicated, distant and had many misunderstandings, yet I loved him. Memories of being the first person to hold him in my arms in the car on the way back from the hospital (seat belts weren't mandatory in 1969) and fun family vacations came up front and center in my mind and my body felt this losses impact.
I don't understand why he had to die so young or so suddenly like he did. But there is one thing I do already know and understand and that is Grief.
Grief waves, grief movement, grief suck.
Upon reading about his passing on Facebook (because that's how it happens sometimes- social media is faster than real communication between family phone calls) I began to feel it in my body. For me, it was in my shoulders that felt an unbearable weight and then, in my hip joints.
As my friend Evelyn text me "there's nothing to tell you about grief that you don't already know...it just sucks". She's right and followed it up with "you've been on this journey for longer than you deserve". She knows me.
What sucks beyond the grief itself, is not understanding what the grief does to you immediately, as well as, over time. THAT is rarely discussed beyond the emotional and mental impacts. We call these the secondary losses.
For me, I knew what was coming and was able to identify it immediately and to respond with a vulnerable, proactive response and a big dose of self compassion. There was also anger- for cancer existing in the world, for personal reasons I couldn't communicate sufficiently, for the fact that grief came to my door again without having permission. Grief is the visitor no one wants to come into their life, but it comes none the less. It's always inconvenient, unwanted and uncomfortable.
It demands your attention and you can't avoid it, it must move through your body, mind and soul. If you refuse it admission and allow it to hold space in your body for too long, it will get stuck. When it gets stuck, you experience even more pain in ways that manifest from the resistance of facing it as it passes through.
Here's what happened to me yesterday....immediately I was tense in my shoulder and hip area. Why? Because when real trauma happens - emotions are held mostly in the hip area. It causes gut pain (gut punch). The gut pain makes us curl up and hide, so you're going to be contracted. That is why the fetal position is where we all end up when we are in active grief. It's here to protect you from the intensity of primal fear of the unknown.
Knowing that there is a connection will make it easier for you to accept that one must slow down, allow the grief to work through you and many times.... that means lying down, resting your body and allowing the grief to enter and take space where it didn't exist before.
For me, this is how grief felt:
1. I felt the pain coming into my mind with receiving the incomprehensible information that he had died.
2. Then, forcing myself to finish meeting after meeting for the work day, I felt drained.
3. I had already taken my morning walk to get my steps in for the day, in anticipation of what might come (caring for me first). So that gave me a little bit of feeling of control in it all.
4. I spoke to family members and felt a complete uncontrollable feeling in each word exchanged. I was teary, upset, angry, stressed, grateful, confused, curious and sad.
5. After all my meetings, I was at a loss what to do. I chose to eat skinny pop popcorn and drank a Coke Zero. Why? Because those were comfort foods from my childhood (except we drank pure Coke). My body was wanting comfort and comfort from food (emotional eater).
6. I realized popcorn and Coke weren't going to solve this pain I was feeling (too late).
7. I took an epsom salt hot soak because the hip pain had gotten too much for me to ignore with every step I took. It helped, along with 1000 mg of Tylenol. Tears flowed. Being near water does that for me.
8. With complete sadness, I went to lay down in bed at 7pm with my comfort kitty. My hips were in so much pain, I could barely find a comfortable position. The room was dark, cool and the Molekule air purifier was on full blast.
9. A short nap I had planned turned into 12 hours of necessary rest...some of it restless, but most of it healing.
10. My first work meeting of the next day was at 8am and I made it, only to break down crying on the computer with my professor. Thank goodness, she was compassionate enough to say "Hold on, let's take a breathe and go slow. Right now, you need you" Pushing through may seem like a good idea, but the body keeps the score and it had my number.
Working in the grief and growth nonprofit industry at Modern Widows Club with others who are experiencing grief every day may make me more knowledgeable about the short and long term impact, but it does not shield or protect me from ever feeling grief again and again in its various ways. From our widow research, 64% of respondents struggled with their body's physical reaction to loss....that's too many!!!
Learn more about our grief, loss and widow research:
Neuroscience shows us that painful emotions are stored in the body. It was Neuroscientist Candace Pert who said "the body is our subconscious mind". The physical body changes depending on what you are feeling. Those emotions are carried through the body when expressed, experiences and stored in the body and the mind. This activity can have a positive or negative effect on the body. Pert says "every cell carried a kind of consciousness that stores memories and emotional states".
Certain emotions are specific to certain areas of the body. This is very eastern Asian medicine thought and they use "somatic" language when referring to this. In western world medicine, we hear it described as 'neural' language. Knowing they are both one in the same, you can understand the whole approach towards emotional health.
The hips are in the sacral chakra, the psoas muscles are there and responsible for fight or flight response. It's all connected. Intense emotions can get trapped there and cause pain in the area that is responsible for us to walk and stand upright. Can you see that grief would impact these areas when you feel like you've been "knocked down to the ground" emotionally?
That's what happened to me yesterday. I couldn't stand up any more (hold the weight of the world on my shoulders) and when I did, I was in physical shoulder and hip pain. I knew intuitively this was GRIEF hitting my body.
As it came into me, I felt the tension and began to do pelvic stretches, hip flexor stretches, acupressure massage on the arc of my feet (where the psoas and adrenal glands are located) and breathing to calm my emotional response.
All of it helped.
But ultimately laying down, getting quiet and allowing my body to rest completely and sleep was what I needed most. Listening to your body is so important. Embracing it, working with it will help you through the grief on the deepest level. From the inside out.
Grief work is exhausting in this way. It requires your attention on multiple levels. It requires more education for yourself and for those around you. Grief teaches us many lessons, and the most powerful ones are the ones we learn intimately from our own personal lives.
Here is a practical way to stretch tight hips when grief hits.
Other articles to lean more:
8 of the Best Hip Flexor Stretches and Exercises
The Clenching Curse: The Hips Don't Lie Even in Grief
My grief journey may look familiar to you or maybe not, what we all need to know is to be aware that depression and anxiety can be from grief getting stuck in the body. Watch for the signs. Many immune compromised and auto immune disorders, inflammatory based illness can become more prominent because of the impact of unrecognized grief in our life.
At Modern Widows Club, we are pioneering the culture of health for women in widowhood because their grief experience has much truth to tell us in this life experience. They have gone unaddressed in the medical industry for too long. I'm grateful for all I've learned from widows stories, functional doctors, acupuncturist, specialists in somatic, mental, emotional and occupational health. It all has made a difference in sharing with you how to proactively respond when 'grief suck' comes uninvited into your life. I hope this helps raise awareness for navigating through grief in a way you may not have experienced before.
How has your body responded to grief in the past? Share in the comments below. I would appreciate hearing from you.
Watch this video from Dr. Marissa Magsino about Grief and Hormone Imbalance.
Much love to you and prayers for my family are welcomed during this emotional time,
Modern Widows Club Founder
and Widow Advocate
Learn more at Healthy Widow Healthy Woman Podcast.