How does grief affect the body? | Physical effects of grief

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The Physical Effects of Grief and Bereavement

Many people are surprised by the intensity of physical feelings experienced after a bereavement.

When someone dies it is very common for our bodies to react in a way we don’t expect. It can be really worrying and confusing. You may lose your appetite, have difficulty sleeping, or feel really anxious. You may feel mentally drained and unable to think straight. People are also often very vulnerable to physical illnesses after bereavement. All of these things are very common. 

These are normal reactions to distress and loss, and should pass in time. But you may want to consult your GP if the problems persist or you need some help managing them. Here are some of the most common reactions and how to help yourself through this time.

How does grief affect the body?

Appetite and digestion

It’s common to lose your appetite and find it difficult to eat, especially in the early days after someone dies. It may feel impossible to swallow and food may taste strange. Some people experience the opposite and find they are eating more than usual, or without thinking. Digestive upsets are also common, and it can feel similar to being constantly stressed and anxious.

What can help?

  • In the early days think about what you can prepare and eat easily. Accept help from others if they offer to bring you food.
  • As time goes on you may find that it helps to stick to a routine of regular mealtimes. It may help to eat smaller portions.
  • Try to make healthy choices, but go easy on yourself if you can’t always stick to your rules.
  • If digestive upsets last more than a few weeks, consult your GP.


Sleep disruption is very common after someone dies. You may find sleep is impossible, and your mind is constantly racing. Sometimes people are frightened to go to sleep – bad dreams and nightmares are common. Sometimes people tell us that they also dread those dreams where the person is still alive, and find the moment of waking and remembering each day very painful. Some people also find they need to sleep more than before and struggle to stay awake in the day. 

What can help?

  • In the early days it can help to try to rest, even if you can’t sleep. If you are struggling to sleep at night it can be tempting to catch up in the day, but if this becomes a habit it can make the problem worse long term. 
  • As time goes on, sticking to regular hours of sleep and a bedtime routine can be helpful. You can find some advice about how to do this on the NHS website
  • Exercise can be really helpful to tire your body out or calm the mind anything from a walk in nature to yoga or an exercise class. Do whatever you can manage and feels right for you. 
  • If sleep problems last for more than a few weeks, consult your GP.

Feeling panicky or breathless

People can often feel very anxious after someone dies. Sometimes this can result in feeling panicky, breathless or having palpitations. A full panic attack can be a very frightening experience. It can make you feel dizzy or confused, faint or even be sick. There are ways to manage these extreme reactions and getting support with your bereavement is a really important option. 

What can help?

  • Exercise is a useful way for your body to reduce tension, and use up the adrenalin that it's producing that's making you feel anxious. All kinds can help but only do what your body will let you. Don’t try and start an extreme new gym class when a gentle walk is what you can manage.
  • Breathing exercises and and meditation can be very helpful. A simple breathing excercise and more information is given on the NHS website.
  • Telling your friends, family and colleagues what’s going on for you so they know how to support you.
  • Diet – some people find certain foods and drinks like coffee can make it worse, and some find it helps. Keeping a food diary could help work out what is affecting you.

Other aches, pains and illnesses

There are many other aches and pains which people often report after they have been bereaved. Grief can affect your whole system. It can also reduce your ability to fight off minor infections. 

What can help?

  • The other tips above regarding rest and diet can also help with general pain and illnesses. 
  • Although not feeling great is quite normal, you should check with your GP if you feel very ill, are finding it difficult to cope, or if minor symptoms do not clear up in a few weeks.

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