Somatic Experience of Grief

-a dispatch from the grief process

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gautama Buddha’s disciples whose
mindfulness, both day and night,
is constantly immersed in the body.
– Dhp 299

Somatic means of the body. I haven’t encountered much in the study of grief in popular media, self-help or psychology that deals with somatic reactions to emotion. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, I’m sure there are scholarly articles on it, but what I mostly see that’s popular is addressed primarily to emotion and thought and pretty much ignores the body. If we look at the well known Kübler-Ross model, there’s nothing in there (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that even mentions the body. Her theory originally dealt with the dying person themselves but has been greatly expanded to cover grief in general in numerous different circumstances such as relationship breakups or traumatic life events that are not potentially fatal but bring significant changes or in dealing with one’s own grief over the death of loved ones, etc. Even in the criticisms of that model and in alternative models there is very little that covers the somatic aspect. For example in Kubler-Ross and other Approaches many valid criticisms are made (some of which I’ve mentioned before) but nothing is really mentioned about the body.

These models and their criticisms originally were developed to revolve around the dying person. That person’s body is dying, not their mind, not their thoughts, not their emotions or whatever they constitute themselves to be psychologically generally, yet no mention of the body appears.

How weird is that?

How can one possibly integrate the death and grief experience without addressing the body which is where the vast majority of it is centered?

The overlooking of the somatic component is changing, with things like Somatic Experiencing as a therapy for PTSD for example but it’s not really all that mainstream and some people call it “pseudoscience” because of the current lack of empirical studies of it. [Neuroscientists where are you on this? Sounds like something that could be a rich field of study.] Some of the techniques are similar to treatments for phobias for example. Those have pretty good empirical evidence so I’d call these specific techniques “unproven” rather than “pseudoscience” at this point.

Then there are various mindfulness courses that include some somatic element, but it doesn’t seem to be emphasized that much. [Maybe I’m wrong about that or maybe some emphasize it more than others.]

With all the lying on the couch staring at the ceiling that I’ve been doing, I’ve had time to notice a few somatic things.

For the first day or so my reaction was all in my head. Just mentally trying to grasp the situation, to “get my head around it” was most of the feeling. A lot of mental confusion and a lot of emotion generated and going in all kinds of directions.

Then it seemed to sink into my body. What an awful feeling. Like near drowning. It happened very suddenly. I was walking and then it felt like my heart literally dropped into my feet. I had to grab the back of a chair because I thought I was going to faint. It was like my body suddenly became lead and I could hardly move. I had to sit down and sat there for probably an hour before I felt stable enough to move.

Sometimes you see on news reports people just collapsing when they react to some tragic situation.  It was exactly like that.

Then came anxiety. All kinds of it.

Anxiety brings most of the attendant somatic symptoms from extreme emotions. Breaking out in a sweat. Hands shaking—yesterday was so bad I spilled my tea all over the place as I was trying to pour it in the cup. Weakness. Feeling faint or nauseous. Dizziness. Heaviness of the body. Numbness. Stiff neck. Sore back. Certain physical reactions seem to accompany certain memories or emotions.

[As I write this it is one week exactly, almost to the minute, since the last time I spoke with him. It was around 18 hours later he died. That thought brings with it a heaviness that makes it very hard to breathe. It’s like an enormous weight is crushing the center of my body.]


[I had to take a little break there.]

I don’t spend all my time currently writing blog posts though it may seem there’s a lot of production going on here. I can type really fast. As I said mostly I’ve just been lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. Sometimes with the TV on but mostly not. Then I take an hour or so to work on a blog post, then do the minimum of household chores, make a meal, take a little walk, talk on the phone if necessary, then resume the position on the couch. If I had an outside job I could probably maintain long enough to put in the necessary appearance and go through the necessary motions. But there would be lots of bathroom breaks so I could keep pulling myself together.

Here’s a thing that pisses me off.

If our western societies were built around human needs rather than the demands of market places dictated by profit for the few and servicing their greed, everybody would get this kind of time to deal with their human situations. No one would be “expected” to turn up at work ready to go the day after their loved one dies, or their baby is born with difficulties, or their house burns down, or they’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, and they’d be allowed to take a little time to be of support to someone else who is dealing with their human situation if necessary.

I know having the time to deal with this and write about it is a luxury a lot of people don’t have.


Anxiety and writing-I mention this in more detail in another post (which is upcoming) but it deals with a lot of the physical symptoms of anxiety and things such as fight or flight responses.

Somatic psychology deals with mind-body issues and embodied emotion. ‘the study of the mind/body interface, the relationship between our physical matter and our energy, the interaction of our body structures with our thoughts and actions.’

Sometimes I’ve been doing body scan meditation in the Vipassana way. [I’ve done Vipassana retreats in India a couple of times.] Here’s a link to something about that from Buddhanet 11. Investigating the Body’s Reality. From that piece:

For many people one’s sense of the body is not so much the qualities we are actually experiencing such as sensations, temperature, heaviness, etc., but more its form and shape – the body image. You could hardly say this is a reality, rather it is imaging – a misreading that creates an illusion. While at the same time, most of us are unaware of the identification we make with the body, not to mention the more obvious identification with the internal narrative, our story, as well.

Here is the whole series from Buddhanet Vipassana Retreat. It is also available as a PDF