Grief, Loss, and the Body

by Janina Fisher, Ph.D.

When I re-located my home and practice from Boston to the San Francisco area five years ago, I was unprepared for how my body was going to respond to its new habitat. I hadn’t considered whether it would feel as much at ‘home’ in California as my thoughts wanted it to.   It didn’t.

Although my body warmed to the ever-present sunshine, it registered the bright light and open sky as unfamiliar and distant.   Conversely, when I first returned to Boston on a chilly January day, I felt tears come to my eyes and heard the words “I’m home!” echo inside.   The sooty snow, crowded wooden houses, and leafless trees all registered as suddenly beautiful, and I felt a bodily longing to melt into familiar surroundings I had once judged as ugly.   An ache in my chest told me I was “homesick,” while a little bubbly feeling in my stomach and an increase in heart rate also communicated that it was exciting to be “home.”   Everything familiar (no matter how unattractive, no matter how much I had once maligned it) evoked a tightness in my throat and brought tears to my eyes. Apparently, “home” is not a destination determined by the prefrontal cortex.   It is a destination determined by the heart and the body.

In relating to the body, I am trained to use Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which always begins by teaching clients to put aside their interpretations or explanations to simply notice the moment-to-moment ebb and flow of body sensations, movements, tension, and sensory experience without judgment.   The therapist is also taught to observe the client’s body language as another form of communication and to remain aware of their body’s messages in parallel with the client’s somatic signals. It has become so automatic for me to ‘simply notice’ my bodily responses as they happen that, when my partner of twenty years suddenly passed away several months ago, leaving my conscious, linguistic brain overwhelmed by the shock, that habit of attending to the body’s communications was instantaneously present to support me.

We typically associate grief and loss with intense emotions, not with sensory or body experience—but that assumption begins to dissolve once we start to observe the body’s response to losing someone important to us.  Just moments after my partner passed away, my mind still in shock, my body knew just what to do: I moved to stroke her cheek, concentrating intently on the sensations I was feeling.   It was much too soon for meaning-making; too soon for existential questions, even too soon for tears. “Just noticing” the familiar tactile sensations of stroking her cheek was comforting, not painful, even as her skin cooled.   Allowing the unfolding of whatever movement or touch came intuitively and on impulse, I discovered that my body instinctively sought comfort and familiarity.   My hand reached for her hand, stroked her hair, patted her shoulder, touched her forehead.   I savored each gesture’s familiar sensations: the softness of skin, the hardness of bone, the muscularity of a shoulder.   Just as I teach my patients to savor a moment in time and to concentrate on it as a new memory that they can choose to etch more deeply in the brain, I consciously tried to lay down a memory trace for each comforting sensation by concentrating on how it felt and then intensifying my focus as if to take a tactile photograph.   Giving myself permission to stay attentive to whatever felt comforting, rather than analyze or interpret, felt ‘right.’ There was no need to wonder if I was sad enough or too sad; whether I should be more tearful or less.

A body-centered perspective is inherently compassionate. The body doesn’t judge: it simply feels, moves, tenses, relaxes, responds to stimuli, increases and decreases energy and arousal.   Lacking the capacity to analyze or interpret, it simply responds to whatever it encounters.   Over the weeks, my body has been my teacher: it gives me permission to notice the tension arising at the sight of a front hall cluttered with coats and boots and to remove just the right number.   It is equally clear, however, that it wants closets and bureaus left just as they are.   The body communicates over and over again that familiarity is a comfort and tells me there is no rush to remove all traces of my loved one’s presence—as if that would spare me pain.   Listening attentively to its communications, I become aware of a bodily state I call, “feeling hit by a truck:” a bit stunned, disoriented, exhausted physically, and with brain slowed down to half-speed.   Not only does the heart ache, but sometimes every muscle in the body feels sore and weighted down.

When I can sustain a relationship with the body experience of grief, it becomes less painful.   There is a strong felt sense that I can trust my body’s healing process; that my heart will heal if I keep listening attentively to the somatic guidance I’m receiving. Already, my body has helped me relax decades-old tendencies to politely refuse help and soldier on without complaint.   In fact, I notice with curiosity the moments that evoke tears: most often, those in which someone consoling offers a kind word or comforting touch.   The sight of flowers is also soothing, and I follow bodily impulses to linger longer on their smells and colors and to let the sensory effects support me.   My body asks me not to interpret what brings tears or soothing but to accept whatever comes up in the moment without requiring that it explain itself.    My body is very wise.

Janina Fisher, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, the Assistant Director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, an Instructor at the Trauma Center, a research and treatment center founded by Bessel van der Kolk, an EMDRIA Approved Consultant and Credit Provider, former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation, and a former instructor, Harvard Medical School. An international writer and lecturer on the treatment of trauma, she is co-author with Pat Ogden of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Attachment and Trauma (Norton) and author of the forthcoming book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors (Routledge, May 2017).



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