The heart actually weakens in response to extreme stress or grief. Patients, mostly women, who are grieving the loss of a spouse or loved one have been known to experience symptoms that mimic a heart attack. During times of distress the nerves that control the heartbeat can set off a maladaptive “fight or flight” response that causes blood vessels to constrict, the heart to gallop and blood pressure to rise, resulting in damage to the body(Jauhar, NYTimes,2018).
The Japanese have a word for this condition: Takotsubo, or broken heart syndrome. In other words, our hearts are sensitive to our emotional system(Jauhar, NYTimes, 2018). Symptoms usually appear two- three weeks after a loss and then weeks later tend to resolve.
I was not so lucky.
I never had chest pains. My heart never skipped a beat or galloped. My symptoms hung around and waited until the pain was so unbearable I had no other choice but to resolve the source of the pain.
The physiological symptoms of my pain surfaced six months shy of the 4th year after my husbands suicide. I did not know what it was, I just knew something was wrong, and I did not know how to fix it. In the weeks and months after my husband took his life, I set my default to what I always do. Just keep going.
I tended to my daughter. I took time off, put my masters degree on hold, sold one house, bought another, discovered Kundalini yoga after never taking a yoga class and let the process of grief unfold. I was numb to much of life. On some days, in the early days and months of grief I would show up to a yoga class and all I did was unroll my sheepskin, sit and cry through the entire kriya and meditation. I kept at it, thankful for the space, and people who allowed me to sit. Four and a half years later, with life in the living, I still keep at my Kundalini practice. I went through a series of acupuncture treatments, reiki, and massage.I threw rocks in the ocean. I threw potatoes in my back yard. I exercised. I met with a therapist and went on a mild antidepressant to keep the base line of my brain functioning. I completed my masters.
The point I am making: I was doing all the right things. I left no healing stone unturned. I was moving forward down the path, and up the road to where we go when someone we love commits suicide.
The body does not lie.
Gradually, the pain on my left side got worse. I kept going. Then the pain grew to include my lower abdomen, and hips. My gait was off. My groove was compromised. It was painful to do yoga, to run, to cycle and at times, walk.
But I kept going.
As we do, we silly humans, when faced with the idea that we might be breaking down, I refused to look at the obvious and did my own research. My primary doctor sent me to:
A gastroenterologist (all clear)
A renal specialist(all clear)
A gallbladder specialist (all clear)
There was nothing wrong with me.
I drank more water. I forced myself to move more, take naps, watched my acid intake and watched my emotions.
I watched my emotions. I watched them real good.
Anger is a bastard. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you are awake. He knows where best to hide in plain sight.
The pain got worse. It hurt to move. It hurt to sleep. It hurt to sit.
We will have to watch this, my doctor said.
The pain got worse. As the pain got worse, my anger got worse.
Was this the other way around?
I called my doctor one more time.
You are explaining muscular pain, not organ pain, she said.
She referred me to a physical therapist, not just any physical therapist, but a physical therapist who deals with pain particular to women.
Women. We do it all, hold it all, contain it all.Keep the channels open.
You will need an assessment.
Within a week I was sitting in the office of a physical therapist and filling out paperwork that asked me questions about my pain and how the pain relates to me emotionally.
Great, they think this is all in my head.
I checked all my boxes and soon enough I was sitting in the office of yet another specialist.
This time was going to be different.
It is not in my head. Please hear me, it is not in my head.
After going through a series of specific questions and a look see of my physical structure and pinpointing not only the base of my pain, but also where the pain radiates, she looked at me and said.
Have you been through anything traumatic in the last year or so?
Ummmmm? Really? But this was almost four years ago.
And then the tears started flowing.
Seeeeee? It is not in my head. It was a little lower. It was in my heart. It was in my soul. Now this motherfucking grief is radiating all over the place. AND. IT. HURTS.
Technically, she said, you are a fall risk. I seriously do not know how you have been moving. You and your body have been in fight or flight mode for nearly four years. Your muscles are tired and twisted. Your body is feeling defeated.
I kept crying.
You have been defying what your body has been telling you-and now we need to unravel this twisted interconnected mass of muscles.
But I did everything right. I threw rocks! I threw potatoes!
It will take time, she said.You will have things to do at home and you will need to be diligent in the work.
she knows me, right?
We know the source, and now we can begin the process of working through the grief that has been lying in wait, holding on to the soft and squishy parts that move your forward. We are going to remove the pain.
It was never in my head.
And so, in the middle of a steamy July, I became diligent in removing the pain and listening to the whisper of grief as it leaves, as it turns and looks over it’s shoulder to get once last glimpse of what used to be.
Just last week, on the first day of the new year, I plunged into 37 degree water at the beach where I was last, walking with my daughter and my dog on that day of days, when something grabbed hold of me and said.
Go home, you have to get home, now!
That day that life changed. That day that all the cells and the microbes in my body changed. That day. I had not been to that beach since, with no plans to ever return. But on the morning of the first day of the new year, something else grabbed hold of me and said.
Get in the water. Just go get in the water.
I hate cold water. I hate being cold.
Get in the water.
I grabbed my car keys and my cape and set the car in motion for the quick fifteen minute drive down to the beach. The sun was shinning. The wind was blowing. And off I went into the water to wash away the remnants of 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
I took me to the water and I washed me down.
Lingering grief went out with the tide.