The passing of a loved one is one of life’s greatest agonies. Death affects everyone at some point in life whether it be a friend, a family member, a beloved pet, or a relationship.
Sorrow invades the heart, confusion overwhelms the mind, and depression takes its toll on the body. Many people wonder why the severe loss had to happen to them and how they will cope with it. This period of grief can be a long and brutal process. Grief stirs up doubt, anger, pain, and anguish. Often times, people become depressed and their mental health, social life, financial condition, and drive are affected from mourning. Others carry the pain on their physical body and may eat to relieve their aching heart or refrain from eating to feel a pain other than the overwhelming grief. Some people turn to faith, doubting and questioning God, they ask “why did you let this happen?”. Losing a loved one is difficult to cope with and takes a brutal toll on the mind, body, and soul of the person affected by it.
The absence of someone important to us triggers hormones and chemicals to be released, internal reactions to be disrupted, important bodily systems to shift into emergency mode, and it all starts in the brain. Processing a loss undoubtedly causes mental conflict and confusion. Specifically in the case of an unexpected death, when one day they are present and the next they are not. No one can prepare their mind to fathom something so unexpected. Mental conflict is the most crucial aspect of the grief process because it consequentially affects every other part of the person. Depression and anxiety are common after a loss due to despair and mental strife triggering the symptoms of those mental disorders. Colin Parkes, a consultant psychiatrist, found that “After a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or child, up to a third of the people most directly affected will suffer detrimental effects on their physical or mental health, or both” (Parkes).
These bereavements cause numerous disorders psychologically. Some people think they see their lost one walking across the street, some hear from them in a dream, and others do not see them at all but long to. The effects may not be as harsh on some, but the grief may last twice as long.
Virginia Hughes, while researching ‘when does mourning become a mental illness’, wrote, “The concept of pathological mourning has been around since Sigmund Freud, but it began receiving formal attention more recently.”(Hughes). In psychiatry, complicated grief disorder (CGD) is a proposed disorder for those who are significantly and functionally impaired by prolonged grief symptoms for at least one month after six months of bereavement. “The new diagnosis refers to a situation in which many of grief’s common symptoms—such as powerful pining for the deceased, great difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless, and bitterness or anger about the loss—last longer than six months.” (Hughes).
Having complicated grief disorder would affect every aspect of one’s life. Relationships, friendships, social life, job performance, and drive to provide would diminish. Those with this lasting grief suffer from long term sorrow and remorse. Eventually, grief turns to depression. Seeking support after a sudden loss is key to overcoming grief, but when that is not done, and the initial wave of support from family and friends dies down, many people find themselves more alone than ever, with just their own thoughts to keep them company. Joseph Nowinski, a clinical psychologist states, “People suffering from major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may shun such support and assistance.
People who don’t get such support, or who avoid it, may be at greater risk for slipping into clinical depression during the grieving process” (Nowinski). The death of a loved one can be the catalyst that awakens depression. The most obvious sign of grief is its impact on the physical body. A broken heart, inability to sleep, and lack of appetite are common physical signs of grief.
In fact, medical knowledge suggests that our bodies already know what our words have long implied: that grief can, quite literally, sicken. In many elderly couples, when one spouse passes away, the other does so too, shortly after. This is due to the fact that grief leaves a person more vulnerable to infectious disease. Mourning, in cases like these, is speeding up mortality. Citing another way the body is affected, Cari Room from The Atlantic wrote, “Previous research has found that following the death of a spouse, people were likely to report more self-medication and worse overall health” (Room). Grief has been found to incite physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss. Grief can even make the taste of food less satisfying.
It has been found that the flu vaccine was less effective in older people who had lost a loved one within the past year than those who had not. According to Psych Central, our bodies go through certain phases when faced with stress, such as grieving a loss. The first phase is the “alarm reaction” that happens when the stress occurs, like the death of a loved one. To put it simply, the brain produces a hormone called adrenocorticotrophic (ACTH) that prepares the body for battle. Then, the ACTH goes from the pituitary gland to the adrenal gland that causes a chemical reaction producing cortisol. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” Prolonged, high levels of this hormone have harmful and stressful physical effects on the body.
So the longer the stress from grief continues, the more ACTH is produced, which means more stress hormones as well. Abnormally increased amounts of this hormone also cause problems with the production of white blood cells. Without the normal production of these cells, our bodies cannot fight germs as well, increasing the likeliness of getting sick. Additionally anxiety and stress resulting from extreme grief can cause the mourner to experience noticeable impairment in concentration, decision making, and even physical reaction time. So, although grief is often thought of as a mental experience, there are many physical effects that come with it. Mourning undoubtedly takes its toll on the physical health of the person influenced by it. A grief process exists that most people go through after experiencing a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Often times, and especially in the case of a very close loved one dying or an unexpected loss, one will begin to question their faith and doubt God’s love.
But although grief can disrupt one’s spirituality and trust in God, he uses every part of our lives, good and bad, to bring us into a closer relationship with Him. A woman in the old testament suffered the loss of everything she knew and loved (Kraft). She was no stoic, no super saint. She felt the bitterness and hopelessness that accompanies grief.
As we study Naomi, we will learn a lot about the God who cares for us in our grief. Her husband took their family and settled down in a godless society for ten years. Her two sons married pagan women. Then her husband died and her two sons followed suit shortly after. She was left with two daughter-in-laws that she felt very disconnected from. So when the news came that the famine had ended in Israel, she prepared to go back home. When she told her two daughters-in-law what she intended to do, they wanted to go with her.
But she said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?” (New International Version, Ruth 1:11). Suffering these great losses together, the women became closer than Naomi ever thought possible. Even though Naomi didn’t see it, God had a plan to meet her need and restore her faith and joy, using her hopeless situation to get her back to the land where he could bless her.
One of the most freeing verses in the Bible is also the shortest one. When Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha after Lazarus had died, He saw their grief. Even though He knew that in just a few minutes He would raise Lazarus from the dead, the Scripture simply says, “Jesus wept” (New International Version, John 11:38). There are many verses in the Bible where God reminds us that grief and loss are a normal part of life and that He will help us through it if we have faith in Him to do so. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (New International Version, Psalm 34:18). In Revelations, He assures us that He will wipe all of our tears away and death, mourning, crying, and pain will cease.
(New International Version, Rev. 21:4). As painful and disheartening as death can be, knowing or realizing God is there for us through it all brings peace to many who suffer. Nevertheless, the psychological and physiological effects of mourning undoubtedly mark a distinct time of sorrow in any sufferers life. Bereavement is one of the most common but stressful life experiences. Coping with grief is possible and maintaining a close relationship and trust in God will make the process much more bearable.