That grief that stays with you like sad marrow in your bones— that is different — when the grief is still very real, but it’s lying dormant like a constant heavy burden, sometimes heavier than others, not the active grief, clenching down like a lion’s jaw on your jugular. This is the anatomy of the latter.

I feel grief in my stomach first. It’s that literal gut-wrenching feeling. As if someone is holding my insides and wringing them like a wash cloth they’re trying to wring dry.  I always want to vomit, feel like I need to vomit, but it never comes to fruition.  It’s as if my body knows that there is not such an easy way to release and rid itself of this pain.

I feel it in my brow, as my face contorts involuntarily into the ugly face of sorrow.

At the same time I feel it in my throat. My throat hurts, tightens, and I forget to breathe.

I feel grief in my lips. I purse them to keep the sounds of pain from escaping. I feel it in the tired corners of my mouth, and in my cheeks, as I push those muscles to capacity, clenching with the ferocity of my sadness.  At some point, after too much time of my throat and lips having been sealed like a tomb, my lungs start to burn, and I remember — oh yes, breath, I need that. Maybe I have an anaphylactic allergy to grief.

I feel it in my chest. It is cliche to say — but my heart hurts. If it’s not my physical heart, then it’s something else in that space right beneath my sternum. But that place, Oh! how it burns, aches, distracts.  I often find my hand unconsciously drawn to press against that spot, as if to press a button to turn off the sharp pain.

Eventually I notice a tingling in my noise — like the pricking sensation that comes with an extremity as it comes awake again after having fallen asleep.

Lastly, usually after some time, as the rest of the grief symptoms fade, my head pounds — I feel a throbbing in my brain. A hangover of grief. And the rest of my body just feels weary.

I don’t know how grief does this to me. To anyone.  How is it that emotion, circumstance, something purely intangible has such a tangible effect on every vital part of my physical being?

I saw an un-attributed quote on Pinterest this year that said, “How can such pain exist without physical harm?”

I’ve asked that question a lot. I’ve started to pay attention to the anatomy of my grief, mapping it out as it rides its painful path through my physicality. But when it’s over, I am left unharmed.

It’s as if grief is a virus that fills me, attacks me, and my body feels it. But unbeknownst to me, it fights back, my spirit fights with it, and the virus retreats when it has run its course. And I’m left with more grief antibodies — a greater capacity to handle grief, to feel it, and to move on with it and from it — which will sustain me the next time.

Which gives me hope. Because if my body can endure that, time and time again, then there is still light. There is still life.  My throat eventually unclenches. My lungs fill easily with air. My head stops pounding. I don’t even notice my heart when it’s not hurting. My face relaxes, my smile comes naturally again, and my appetite returns.

And if my body is resilient, how much more so is my spirit?

I get the opportunity to laugh a lot and cry a lot in life with my close friends these days. Which is a testament to this. The grief that causes my uncontrollable frowns does not destroy my ability to uncontrollably smile. Like a virus, it must run its course.

Photos taken in the same sitting. Both of these are candid, though taken in a studio.

In the end, I remember Henri Nouwen’s words: “We have to choose joy. And we have to keep choosing it.”
We have to keep choosing it. We can only heal what we let ourselves feel. So let grief run through your veins, let it run its course. It’s part of the process.


For any who are in grief, new or old, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry for your pain. You are not alone.