My father died from a heart attack when I was eight. In a well-intentioned but disastrous move, my mother forbad me from attending his funeral. She thought that ‘keeping me cheery’ would be good for me.
As a result, I never got to mourn the loss of my dad when he died. Instead I had to wait decades to release the pain that I had trapped inside my body.
Denial: Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Cost
My mother’s positive intention was to help me cope with the pain. She believed that avoiding the pain would somehow improve my life.
She was wrong.
By following her coping strategy I learned to suppress my emotions, becoming withdrawn and feeling hollow inside. My emotional life was impoverished as a result.
Her coping strategy is a common one. When loss and grief are too much to deal with, we stuff our feelings and get on with our lives – trying to live ‘normally’ on top of an underground lake of troubling emotions that never goes away.
Unfortunately, this kind of denial has a short-term benefit – feeling less pain in the moment, but a long term cost of never actually dealing with the pain. The more pain we avoid, the fuller that lake of unresolved feelings becomes.
Living with unresolved pain has long-term negative effects on emotional and physical health.
Emotionally, we’re stuck in the past. Anchored to old feelings of heartache, we cannot experience new joys, loves and dreams. Everything is tarnished by our subterranean pain.
There’s also a physical cost. The body sites where pain is buried are more prone to injury, infection and degeneration because they carry more physical strain and are more likely to become inflamed. More about that in a moment.
Grief Trapped In The Body
In the article How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body, I shared how we hide emotions from ourselves and trap them inside our bodies.
So, what are the specific body sites we use to trap sadness and grief?
Well, we express sadness and grief by crying. Crying involves the entire respiratory system. Our nose, throat, lungs, diaphragm and ribs all participate to produce cathartic sobs.
Therefore it makes sense in order to suppress those feelings, we have to close off those same body sites. That is exactly how we hide loss and grief in our bodies – we immobilize our respiratory system. You’ll recognize the very common posture of this young woman: she’s collapsing her respiratory system in an unconscious attempt to feel less sadness.
Do you recognize this body posture in loved ones when they’re feeling sad? Do you adopt this same posture on your ‘blue’ days? If you do, it’s an unconscious attempt to try to feel less pain, but it will also prevent you from processing your emotions in healthy ways.
There is one other site that can be affected by repressed grief: the skin. The skin is our largest sensory organ and is essential for our experience of connection with other people, especially when we’re very young. As adults, we still need touch, and lack of connection through loving touch can affect can manifest as physical symptoms in the skin.
Physical Symptoms Of Suppressed Grief
When emotions get trapped in the body, they often lead to inflammation in the sites where the emotions are trapped. This is especially true of the ‘softer’ emotions like sadness and grief. Just think about it for a while – when you cry your eyes get puffy and your nose runs. These are inflammatory responses.
As I described in my article on allergies, chronic inflammation can fool the immune system into thinking there is a problem and trigger hyper-immune conditions. This commonly results in allergies, asthma, or chronic congestion and coughing.
In the skin, the most common physical symptom is eczema, a condition of hyper-inflammation. In the world of traditional Western medicine, eczema has no cure but symptomatic relief can sometimes be achieved with anti-inflammatory creams. Of course, a more effective, non-medical cure would be to release the emotional burden that causes the inflammation in the first place.
How To Heal Sadness And Grief
When you realize the long-term costs you’ve paid by suppressing sadness and grief, the natural response is to want to release and heal it.
I’ve put together this 20-minute guided meditation that will show you how to do just that: How To Release Sadness And Grief. The process involves reconnecting with the body sites where the emotions were trapped, then using guided awareness to release and heal the pain. The guided meditation employs the healing power of your own heart to complete the healing process.
That sounds OK for the minor losses we experience in everyday life, but some grief seems unbearable. The death of a parent, child or loved one. Being left by a spouse or the love of your life. Having your dreams crushed. Knowing you’ve lost something that can never be replaced.
How can we release and heal those elephant-sized losses?
How Do You Eat An Elephant?
It’s a time-honored question, “How do you eat an elephant?” with a simple answer: “One bite at a time.”
When I finally got round to mourning my father’s death, it would have been way too much pain to reconnect with and experience all at once. If I had, I would have ended up as an incoherent quivering blob of jelly on the floor.
Just like eating an elephant, the way to deal with unbearable grief is one bite at a time.
Free Yourself From Grief One Bite At A Time
I designed the guided meditation, How To Release Sadness And Grief, to be used to heal a small amount of pain each time you follow it. It’s intended to be used in bit-sized chunks.
For a small loss, a single sitting may suffice to release the buried emotion. For a larger loss like a relationship breakup, you might work through it in several sittings over the course of a few of weeks. For those truly unbearable losses – the ones that you think you could never confront and heal – it might take months of regular work.
However quickly or slowly you work through your reservoir of trapped pain, the payoff is the same: better physical health, more joy, and more freedom to love, connect and bond with people in the ways that are most important to you.
Once you understand how loss and grief get trapped in the body, you also have the key to release and heal those painful emotions.