If you’ve recently lost a beloved pet, have you noticed that you’re experiencing new physical symptoms as well the emotional turmoil associated with grief?
The physical side of bereavement can add new layers of stress to an already difficult time in your life.
Before we experience grief for the first time, most of us think of it as a single emotion but, as you know from personal experience, grief is actually much more nuanced, affecting your mind and your body.
Common physical symptoms of grief
Losing someone you love can cause huge chemical shifts within your body, such as higher-than-usual amounts of adrenaline in your system. Naturally, this affects how you feel physically.
If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms since your pet died or went missing, then please be reassured that they are probably a direct response to your grief:
- Digestive problems
You may find that you have little or no appetite at the moment. It’s also common for bereaved people to experience temporary digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain, feeling nauseated or a horrible empty feeling in the stomach.
Be gentle with yourself. Try to eat small amounts of food throughout the day, if you feel up to it, and do what you can to stay hydrated, even if it means setting a reminder on your phone to drink a glass of water.
- Disrupted sleep
Are you finding it impossible to sleep? Or is sleeping the only thing you want to do right now? Perhaps your sleep cycles are back to front or you sleep in small bursts throughout the day?
Any kind of disruption to your usual sleep patterns will affect how you feel. Research would suggest that almost everyone who suffers from bereavement experiences some kind of sleep disruption. This can increase in people showing signs of complicated grief.
Of course, too much or too little sleep can have an impact of all areas of your life, affecting your concentration, coordination, energy levels and much more.
If you are struggling with your sleep right now, you might find this article from “What’s Your Grief?” helpful.
It is packed full of suggestions about how to make your sleeping environment more conducive to rest, adopting a bedtime routine, relaxation techniques and things to avoid.
- Low energy
Grief is exhausting. Whether it’s because you’re eating less and struggling to sleep or because your mind is in overdrive, it’s completely understandable that you feel tired and low on energy. You may even find that your muscles feel weak.
Again, give yourself time and permission to take life at a slower pace. Rest when you need to rest.
Some people find it helpful to set small targets for what they want to achieve in the day, even if it’s a five-minute walk in the fresh air. As counter-intuitive as it seems when you’re utterly exhausted, even gentle exercise can help to boost your energy levels.
- Weight changes
A lot of bereaved people find that they experience weight gain or weight loss in the weeks and months after losing a loved one.
If you find you’re putting weight on, it could be because you’re eating convenience food and takeaways more (because it’s too exhausting to think about cooking) or because you’re exercising less. This can especially affect bereaved dog carers who no longer have their canine companion to encourage them to take daily walks or those who have lost a beloved horse.
On the flipside, if you’re losing weight, it may be because your appetite is non-existent or you just don’t have the energy to think about food.
Disruptions to your sleep can also affect your metabolism and lead to weight fluctuations.
As many people find pet loss hard to talk about, and experience it as a disenfranchised grief, it’s not uncommon to feel socially isolated, which can impact on your eating and exercise habits.
If you have a loved one who will encourage you to eat healthily or come out for a walk with you, do try to reach out to them.
Sadly, the stress of grief can lower your body’s immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses such as colds, the flu and other viruses.
If you already had a chronic health condition before your pet died, your symptoms may temporarily worsen. This is why it’s important to look after yourself as much as possible.
Remember, your pet wouldn’t want to see you suffer.
All of that extra adrenaline in your body can cause feelings of anxiety and nervousness, such as heart palpitations, a tingling or numb sensation in your extremities, sweaty hands, shallow breathing and more.
Essentially, your body believes it is in a ‘fight or flight’ situation. It wants to protect you from something that might hurt you, not realising that you’re already hurting.
You may find some helpful suggestions about coping with these symptoms in our previous article about anxiety after pet loss.
- Feeling hot or cold
It may seem strange but many people find that their body temperature fluctuates wildly after a bereavement. One minute you might feel chilled to the bone and then the next, you’re in the throes of night sweat.
Again, these physical symptoms are typically caused by a surge of adrenaline.
- Aches and pains
Sadly, the stress and emotions of grief can cause genuine feelings of physical pain and discomfort, such as migraines, a stiff neck, backache, stomach ache, chest pains, joint pain or muscular aches.
Most people find that their physical aches and pains lessen over time. If you are experiencing physical pain, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP about pain relief or other treatment options.
- Concentration problems
Are you struggling to focus on simple tasks? Are you scared to drive because you can’t concentrate and you’re slow to react?
Again, this is a common physical symptom of grief.
Many factors can affect your concentration levels. Are you sleeping? Are you eating properly? Are you constantly thinking about your pet or reliving the last time you saw them?
Even big chemical shifts in your body can affect your concentration. During a traumatic time, for example, when your brain and body are in pure survival mode, your mind doesn’t process images and memories in the same way as it does normally.
This can impact how you perceive what’s happening around you when you’re grieving and give you a sense of looking at life through a window or on a delay.
Coping with your physical symptoms of pet loss grief
As you can see, grief is as physical as it is emotional. If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, please do know that it’s a normal response to loss (although we understand this doesn’t make your experience any easier).
It’s important that you take care of yourself.
Rest when you can. Eat well (but little and often, if necessary). Exercise when you have the energy.
And if you want to talk about your loss, support is available.
The Ralph Site Facebook group offers a community of bereaved pet carers who offer kindness and compassion and who understand what you’re going through.
You may also find strength by reaching out to the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service.
Although it is hard to imagine it right now, the physical symptoms of pet loss grief are temporary. Over time, you will find that they improve and disappear.
Until that time, do know that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support