Grief – a feeling of loss to the body and mind

Grief is a complex and very individual response to cope with whatever loss you are perceiving.

Grief is referring to the process of dealing and coming to terms with loss. It does not only refer to the loss of a loved one, but can also be experienced following a divorce, loss of employment and impaired physical ability. Grief is a complex and very individual response to cope with whatever loss you are perceiving. No one can really put themselves in your shoes unless they have taken off their own shoes, and we all struggle to take off our own shoes!

The loss someone experiences is due to a specific relationship that they’ve had with a person or a change in circumstances that are unique to them. People are often judged by the way they handle loss, we cannot prescribe how people should deal with their loss or whether it is valid, we can only support them and assist if we see they are not coping or if they revert to means that are detrimental to their physical or emotional state. The body-mind connection should also be remembered. Our bodies do react to emotional stress and grief. Several studies proved that grief could increase inflammation, take a toll on the immune system (make you vulnerable to infections), and even alter the heart muscle resulting in “broken heart syndrome”.

The concept of body grief is an interesting one. Body grief refers primarily to the loss felt for not having the body you once had. It can be a response to loss experienced by someone due to an illness, or an accident that affected their bodies and ultimately their body-image. Body grief is relevant in several circumstances, for example:

An amputee that must deal with a different body shape and ability, and the fear that people will treat them differently because they look different.

A patient who suffered a stroke and is trapped in a differently abled body, be it that their face is drooping due to paralysis, or they might have a hemiplegia (one side is paralysed) and surely the biggest challenge, to deal with the loss of functionality and independence.

A person who had surgery due to cancer/trauma causing disfiguring and often a decline in physical ability. Think of the woman losing her breast due to breast cancer, although prostheses are available, some women still understandably, experience severe trauma because of it. Some opt for a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy, and research showed in turn they suffer from anxiety that the cancer was not properly removed and will come back.

A patient that needs a stoma bag (colostomy, ileostomy, urostomy) to assist in elimination. A basic bodily function that is now compromised. These patients (ostomates) experience anxiety and depression as their quality of life is challenged, they must deal with leaking bags, odours that escaped without warning, dietary changes that are needed to control the output to name but a few. It has a tremendous impact on their body image and how “acceptable” they feel to themselves and to other people.

One should be aware that these losses will lead to a grieving period, and one needs to assist a loved one or a patient, in dealing with it. One should not underestimate the role of counsellors pre- and post-operatively, that will ease the loss and assist the individual with expectations. Support groups are an important consideration. It does help to share your experience with others, not only might one alleviate others’ suffering but one could get useful information from those who have been through it all. It is also reassuring that your emotions are valid and normal. What is on the other spectrum of body grief, surely body joy. Maybe we should pay more attention during our lives, to enjoy our bodies and all its functionalities while it is still there.

We are all negatively influenced by the media, we will have to start with ourselves, how we perceive the “ideal body”. There is no such thing as the “ideal body”, we need to look at functionality, quality of life and ways to adapt to new lifestyles, more than anything else. As a bystander to someone who might be suffering from body grief, understanding this concept, and realising that a grieving process needs to take place will assist the patient/loved one. Don’t deny their loss and their need to work through this process. Encourage them to seek help, especially if a loss is anticipated (breast surgery, amputation) to help them to prepare for the loss that is eminent.

Grief (noun)
Synonyms: Sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress

Body Grief (noun)
Synonyms: sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, and distress for not having the body one used to have

Dr. Janet Strauss is a Medical Doctor and the Chief Operations Officer at Medwell SA – The Home Health Care Specialists. For more information visit

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