The Grieving Body: Learning to Let Go and Live Life
by Marvin H. Berman, Ph.D.
There are no words to express our experience when we lose a loved one. When I look into the eyes of someone who has just suffered such a loss, I hear the hollow ring of all the words that rise in me. I say what I can fully accept, "I'm so very sorry for your loss, there's just nothing to say." As a man socialized in this culture I usually also add, "If there's anything I can do..., as this helps ease my sense of helplessness. This sense of there being little to nothing which can be said to capture and express the depth of feeling that comes with profound loss started me thinking about how then could such feelings be explored and expressed. What happens next is almost always the same; some moments up to about a minute of looking silently into each other's eyes, breathing quietly, sometimes tears forming in our eyes and finally, a small smile emerging usually at the same moment. Being a body-oriented psychotherapist affords me an option sometimes unavailable to the more traditionally trained therapist for understanding what is taking place and how one might begin to intervene effectively. Words like attunement and resonance help guide my thinking and yet, the processes which are taking place are operating below the level of intellectual awareness and are primarily energetic, i.e., felt responses, grounded in the body's natural rhythmic patterns of experience and expression.
What constitutes letting go on a body level has everything to do with the ways in which we carry our feelings within us. The body is the repository for all our experiences including those of which we have become unaware, i.e., out of contact. This lack of conscious contact with our past experiences in no way should suggest that they do not continue to directly effect our perceptions of our inner and outer worlds. As psychoanalytic theorists, most notably Wilhelm Reich, M.D. have suggested, the collected wisdom and suffering of the psyche is bound up in the chronic contractions of our musculature. The source of relief and renewal is then to be found in the body in the regaining of ones full motility and capacity for authentic self-expression.
Grief like any trauma can be recognized in the body as a pattern of deep muscular contraction. The specific pattern of contraction will follow the already present lines of demarcation laid down from earliest childhood. We all learn to contract our muscles in order of their coming under conscious control as a means of reducing the direct experience of displeasure and pain both psychic and physical. We learn very early on that holding our breath stops the flow of painful emotion and gain some measure of control over one's emotions. It is our first lesson in 'getting a grip on ourselves." This is how we all develop what Dr. Reich and others who studied his approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy referred to as characterological armor. This refers to the patterns of chronic tension that protect the psyche from being overwhelmed with anxiety or other intense negative emotions. Grief doubles us over leaving us breathless as if struck in the solar plexus or the gut, or pulls us down to the ground as if our legs could no longer support our weight. Realizing the powerful messages our body is sending us through these visceral experiences, supports our capacity to tolerate grief and remain related to ourselves, connected to our loved ones and to our own lives.
Making Space for Grief
There needs to be time and space given to the experience of grieving and loss in the service of healing and recovery. Creating space to cry and feel whatever is present in the moment emotionally and find ways to express those feelings with your body, e.g., cry, scream, hit the bed with a tennis racquet or your hands, kick the bed, twist a towel, tear up old phonebooks. One very effective technique used by my wife is to collect glass bottles in a container in the basement. She would then take 3 plastic bags from the supermarket and put a bottle in the first bag knotting it closed inside the other two bags. She would then hurl the triple-sealed bottles against the far wall of the basement while screaming at the top of her lungs. This would continue until all bottles were smashed or she was relieved of her tension. Cleaning up then was simply a matter of putting the plastic bags filling with broken glass in the trash container near the 'target' wall.
Making space for grief also means opening up your body to the experience of loss, making room for the sensations and feelings that arise to find expression in your breathing, movements and sounds. These are the 3 dimensions of self-expression and as such need to be equally available at all times. When one dimension is blocked, our body/mind/spirit's capacity for life is diminished. The task then is to keep ourselves free to express fully through the open hearted expression of our grief, longing, rage and joy. I suggest people create space for expressing all their feelings, e.g., hitting the bed with a tennis racquet, kicking and screaming on the bed and letting their bodies move spontaneously while allowing unedited sounds to emerge.
Grounding in Grief
Being grounded is a phrase we often hear without considering its meaning on a body level. My view of being grounded entails how we are relating to gravity, i.e., the felt sense of our body in space. When we see people who are grieving or when we ourselves are filled with these feelings our relationship to the ground is quite different. Jews are instructed to remove their shoes for the initial 7-day mourning period called 'sitting shiva'. The traditional reason is to symbolically withdraw oneself from the normal world and enter the world of grieving fully the loss one has sustained. I think it also serves to help us physically reconnect with the earth and thereby our deeper emotions. It is through the support of our connection to the earth and those who survive the loss with us that we can continue on with our lives. I suggest people spend time standing and feeling the ground with their feet and breathing diaphragmatically. The deeper we breath the more we feel. The more we feel, the more we can express, thereby remaining connected to the world and ourselves.
Mirrors in traditional Jewish homes are covered during the mourning period to encourage one to not be concerned with outer appearance. I think it also stressed that we look at others and look into ourselves and 'see' with our feelings what is correct and appropriate to the task of grieving. This tradition suggests to me the importance of our eyes and looking as a way of grounding ourselves in the grieving process. Looking steadily into the eyes of another person can help connect us to our innermost experience. We can sometimes feel a sense of deep connection through our gazing into the face of another person. "If only I could see him/her one more time" is an often-repeated phrase of those who are grieving. Connecting deeply with another person simply using our eyes can then be a powerful tool for helping bear our hardest feelings.
"Bearing the burden of their loss"..."heavy hearted... "stricken with grief"... "stone-faced"... "stiff upper lip"... "wracked with grief". These phrases so often repeated in the places of grieving make direct reference to the body. Let's take a lesson from these comments and focus on our embodied self as we confront the depth and wonder of separation and letting go.
Marvin H. Berman, Ph.D.,CBT,BCIAC(EEG) is a psychologist and Bioenergetic Therapist in private practice in Lafayette Hill, PA and is President of the Quietmind Foundation research and training center studying EEG biofeedback technology and its integration in the public healthcare system. His life and practice was profoundly shaped by the loss of his father at age 3.
Marvin H. Berman, Ph.D., CBT, BCIAC(EEG)
President, Quietmind Foundation
600 Germantown Pike Ste. A
Lafayette Hill, PA 19444-1800
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