Grief: A mind/body conundrum

Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic...

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This is a cautionary tale.

The main character, a woman of a certain age, became concerned about suddenly being short of breath. Nine months earlier she had defended her title in a 5k community road race, so it didn’t seem to make sense that she would be huffing and puffing after one block on a slight incline. She worried more and more, and finally went to see her primary care physician.

“No,” said the doctor, “this should not be. We’ll start with a stress test to check out the heart, and then go with a pulmonary function test. Recent x-rays haven’t shown anything wrong with your lungs, but we’ll want to make sure.”

The patient aced the stress test, which relieved everyone. Subsequently, at the end of the pulmonary function tests she did the six-minute walk, as instructed, regular pace, and the nurse who had been following along in case she conked out said, “Well, you’ve got no shortness of breath, and I’m exhausted.”

In between, an interesting thing had happened. During a visit with her niece, who is a family practice physician in another state, the medical dilemma happened to come up. “Well,” said the niece, rather gently, “you’re doing all the right things: seeing your doctor, having a stress test first, checking pulmonary function. But when all is said and done you did just lose a sister to respiratory failure, while you were still grieving the loss of another sister almost within the same year…   It could be that your body is just trying to tell you something.”

Almost immediately I felt better. Went ahead with the pulmonary function test just to err on the side of caution, but by then I was feeling so much better that just walking around that hospital corridor at what felt a leisurely pace was still enough to wear out a nurse who is 10 years younger. She hadn’t told me she was required to follow. And of course, at the start of it all, I hadn’t thought to mention anything about sibling loss to my primary care doctor. Communication is good.

Soon afterwards, I attended a meeting at which the keynote speaker was Lyn Prashant, founder of an organization called Degriefing. Among the handouts was a page headed “Common Grief Reactions,” featuring lists of physical, emotional and mental responses to grief. Number 5 under Physical? You guessed it: shortness of breath.

Who knew? Certainly not this writer, who has only spent the past three decades intensely involved with end-of-life issues. Hospice volunteer, part of an AIDS support group throughout the 1990s, currently a chapter board member and client volunteer for Compassion and Choices, author of dozens of articles and one book about end-of-life issues. Never heard of any of those physical manifestations of grief — or if I had, they were too abstract to register.

That was then, this is now: Loss, sorrow, grief — is it all in your head? Maybe not.

6 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing. In the rush to Maximize Productivity, no one in our society is encouraged to let grief run its course, so people linger in an unresolved state for years, trying to keep a Cheerful Face on while dying inside.

    • You are so right, Sam. Grief seems to have morphed from natural process to unacceptable show to subject of therapeutic analysis. Maybe we should go back to natural process.

  2. So sorry for your losses, Fran. Thanks for drawing attention to the impact that emotional states can have on physical ones.

    • Thanks, Joe. I’m so often up on my soapbox trying to get people to look at mortality as part of life that I miss the peripheral details. But to be found life-affirming is a lovely compliment.

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