Coping With Grief In Your Body: A Relaxation Exercise

The hurt burrows into the tissues of our body and the fiber of our mind and contracts around pain, turning it into suffering. The unwillingness to touch our pain with mercy, even with forgiveness, amplifies our discontent answers our life out of tune.

Steven Levine, Unattended Sorrow

Coping With Grief
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It is not only your heart that suffers when you grieve the loss of a loved one.  For most of us, our body feels the icy pain of loss and collapses in on itself. You will certainly experience the physical aspects of grief in your own way, but some of the common reactions include fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath and a tight sensation in the throat and chest.

Often ignored, in good times and bad, the body can be a source of suffering or the pathway to relief. Much like a small child, if the body is ignored it will throw a tantrum and make things worse. If you attend to your body with loving-kindness, you can melt the icy tension in your muscles and heart. This will not only reduce physical suffering, but will give your mind a place to rest. A chance to take a break from the rumination and worry that so often accompanies grief.

I know firsthand the physical pain of loss. And I understand that when the mind is in a state of worry the idea of “relaxing” can seem both frightening and impossible. Coping with grief in your body, however, is easier than you may think. I know, from both personal experience and from working with my clients, the emotional and physical benefits relaxation can have on the grieving body and mind.

Grief is perhaps the most intense form of stress for most people. We are all aware of how stress can make our body feel bad. Our muscle tension is a sign our body is preparing for battle, but the reality is there is nothing we need to fight other than our own stress! Fortunately, the stress reaction can be reversed. When invited to relax, the body not only stops the stress reaction (known as fight-flight-freeze), it can reverse the harmful physical effects of stress.

Of course relaxation will not change the reality of your loss. But it can reduce your physical suffering, and simultaneously give you one less thing to worry about. Try the exercise below in a safe and warm space, where you won’t be disturbed. You will practice this laying down on a mat or blankets on the floor. Cover yourself with another blanket for warmth. If it feels right, place a pillow or rolled up blanket beneath your knees to relieve pressure on your lower back.

Follow the instructions, and know if you get distracted this is normal. You can always start over by returning your attention back to your breath. You may find it helpful to play a recording of natural sounds such as the ocean, or other calming music.

If you are under a doctor’s care, or are experiencing trauma symptoms, please consult with a medical professional for doing this exercise.

Relaxation Exercise For Grief In The Body

Suggested Practice Time: 20 Minutes or More

  1. Lie on your back and allow your arms to rest beside you on the floor with your palms facing up.
  2. Close your eyes and let your face be without expression.
  3. Set your intention for this practice. You may wish to say to yourself something like “For now, I am going to focus on my breath, and invite my body to relax. I do not need to think about anything else. I am right here attending to my body.”
  4. Take a few full inhales and exhales. Allow your chest to expand as big as it can on each inhale. Notice the release with each exhale.
  5. Breathe naturally. Let your breath returned to its natural flow, but allow your mind to stay focused on each inhale and each exhale as they happen. Get curious about your breath. Notice the space between your inhales and exhales. Notice the length of your inhales and exhales. Use the rhythm of your breath to anchor you to the present moment.
  6. Observe your body. Scan through your body and notice the places where you feel tension. Then notice the places where you don’t feel tension. Are there any places that feel neutral or numb?
  7. Invite your body to relax. On each exhale, imagine you could invite each part of your body that is feeling tension to soften. If it feels right, you may imagine saying to each muscle “I invite you to release this tension. You may relax now.” Treat your body with tenderness and kindness, and observe the effects of relaxation.
  8. Rest. Once you reach a state of relaxation, give yourself permission to rest or fall asleep.
  9. Arise.  When you are ready to complete this exercise, curl up on your side and stay there for a few breaths. Use your arms to bring yourself up to a seated position slowly.
  10. Journal. If you keep a grief journal, record your experience when you are finished.

Heather Stang

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Mindfulness & Grief. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She has led mindfulness-based grief workshops for organizations such as the National Fallen Firefighters Association and Hospice of Frederick County, and is a member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Heather’s mission is to help people who are grieving to stay healthy and benefit from the transformative experience of grief, using mindfulness-based practices, relaxation, and expressive arts. She has an established practice offering Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions, day-long retreats, and 8 Week Yoga for Grief groups. She is based in Maryland. You can find her on Google +.