This blog is for those who are grieving themselves, or supporting people who are, whether family and friends or professional patients or clients. It is for those who may not be familiar with touch as a way of helping themselves, or who would like to understand why it might be beneficial in such circumstances.

Touch can be a very useful thing to do for yourself if you are sad, alone or grieving. You can learn some easy techniques in an online session with a good teacher, and if you learn these techniques, you can also help others who need some support when they are grieving.

The techniques I am referring to are done on top of clothing and are effective and safe.

In this blog, I look at why we grieve, how grief changes over time, what happens in our body, and how touch can support the natural process.

Why do we grieve?

Loss comes about as a result of change, and as life is full of change, so we are all familiar with sadness or grief. Some changes are small and the resulting grief passes quickly – the seasons turn, a child goes to school or leaves home, we get older, we move house. Other types of grief can take longer to come to terms with – the break-up of a relationship, being made redundant, and the death of friends and pets.

None of us responds the same as anyone else – what is a short-lived grief for one, may take ages for another. Many of us watch our relatives negotiate cancer, old age, and dementia, and we all react differently. We, ourselves, may already have faced a life-threatening illness, or been through a transition as a result of disease. We may feel ‘back to normal’ relatively quickly, or feel it will never end.

Grief changes over time

Grief is a natural reaction to change and can sometimes take more time to ease than we anticipate it will. There can be initial, more extreme feelings, but most report that these do, gradually, lessen or change in intensity, becoming something that we can live with. Unpleasant memories related to the change will probably get balanced with happier ones. Slowly, the grief will cease to interrupt our lives adversely or so much.

There are many ways that we deal with grief instinctively – by talking and sharing memories and experiences, keeping going to work so that we have something to focus on, spending some time alone, exercising, being in the fresh air, participating in rituals and so on.

What is going on in your body when you grieve?

When we are grieving, it is not uncommon to forget about, cut off from, or feel removed from our body. It is a form of trauma and our emotions are uppermost. We may feel distressed, anxious, angry, fearful, panicky or blank. We may replay the event over and over again. These emotions and thoughts, and the reasons for them, can be all-encompassing. It can feel like they are filling us up so that there is no room for anything positive, or for appreciation of the good and the kind. They don’t leave room for being aware of tiredness or hunger or even other people’s needs. We are dis-embodied.

There may be others who rely on our support at home, because they are also grieving or because they are dependent on us. We may still be at work and fulfilling an important role. In the effort to manage the needs of others, we might forget about and stop caring about ourselves. People report a sense of stumbling on from day-to-day without resting, or being in contact with what’s happening inside. There is no connection with their body.

We may fantasise, or live in our imagination, wish we were somewhere else, or even that we would die. That could be an attempt at not feeling the difficult emotions or having certain thoughts. It is a way of leaving the body because the body is where the feeling is. We choose to leave.

Sometimes we do it by being busy, looking after others, or use stimulants to get by (alcohol, drugs, gaming, sugar, sex). If we do this, we become unaware of our body’s sensations and needs. We retreat elsewhere.

If the loss was sudden or particularly shocking, it can be as if we are shaken out of our body all in one go, and we may have a sense of being outside looking in, or at a distance from ourselves. We may not know how to get back in.

Our needs are our body’s way of reminding us to look after it

It may be that we sit alone on the sofa after the change has taken place and the feelings we have are so unpleasant that we gradually start to ignore our body. We use our mind to pretend that something is not happening. We stop listening to it. It might be a way of getting control over something which seemed to be beyond us, initially. It may be a form of self-punishment. Whatever, the reason, we put our needs, which are the reminders that our body gives us to look after it, away. Bit-by-bit, we become less embodied.

We may be desperate, sensing that we are really close to the edge and may do something that would endanger our, or someone else’s life. We cast around for help, to save ourselves. It is as if we send out a search party to find aid, and we leave our body in the process. It is a necessary matter of self-protection.

Long grief – when it is still moving us to tears many years later

If we stay somehow removed from our body over a long period of time, it can result in the need for medication which most of us would prefer to avoid if we could. Sometimes these drugs prolong the initial grief stages, putting them off so that they last longer than they might naturally do. Medication can be necessary if we have got to a desperate state and need a break, but most of us would prefer not to have to take it, especially if coming off it takes a long timees.

We recognise this ‘long grief’ when we meet with our friends and they cry as they are telling us about their mother’s death 20 years ago, or if we find ourselves doing the same. It is as if the early grief is still so present that it spills over as soon as we talk about the circumstances. Maybe we get physical symptoms (sinusitis or repeated coughs and colds, for example) in the years afterwards, and can’t throw them off, or feel increasingly fed up or angry or low spirited about the things we used to find pleasure in. This is another sign that we are not finished with those stages of grief and still need some support.

What is ‘being in touch with the body’?

It’s understandable that these things happen, that we lose contact with our body, but in fact, being in touch with it in the right way, can help. Because, it is not usually the physical body which we are forgetting, or choosing to leave, retreat from, or ignore, it is our feelings. Being in touch with the physical body means having a sense of where our arms and legs are at any one time. It means the sensation of the soles of our feet inside our shoes, on the ground. It means that we notice if we are breathing quickly or slowly, if we are hot or cold, whether we have tight or relaxed muscles, saliva in our mouth or a dry feeling. We might use the words ‘grounded’ and ‘centred’ and what we mean by that is 3we have our awareness and sensations more in the middle of us, the abdomen, and in the lower half – the hips, pelvis, legs and feet – rather than in the head or chest so much of the time.

Being in touch can be helpful

Focusing on the body can be a relief and a rest from the emotion or give us a chance to process our feelings in a balanced and grounded way, making them more manageable.

It can move us from being in a fight or flight, emergency state – where we might want to attack, run away or scream – into being more relaxed inside. That could mean that we notice we actually feel hungry or tired and therefore choose to eat and sleep to relieve these sensations; that we might be able to release our bowels which are often stuck when we are grieving.

If taking a break from the high emotional state gives us a rest, then we might be able to mentally sort out the practical things which have to be done, in small portions. Things like doing paperwork, or making funeral arrangements. We can also benefit mentally from being more in our body, as it means that we can put things into perspective.

If getting into our body means we notice we are stiff, that might prompt us to get up in the morning. If it results in our noticing how stifled we feel, we might open a window for some fresh air. If what we become aware of is that we are lonely, perhaps we will pick up the phone or send a message to someone we sense might be there for us.

Being self-compassionate and getting a sense of control

Knowing how we are – which parts are stiff or hurt, or numb – connects us to the reality of what has happened and its effects on us. It helps to explain why we are struggling to manage work and family, and that might engender some self-compassion.

Learning some touch techniques can also give us back a sense of control because we have done something to help ourselves, we have met our own needs and got a result.

The touch techniques are simple and easy

We might not be able to concentrate, or contemplate learning something complicated and new, but there are very simple touch techniques that can be used to assist us in this process. It doesn’t take much brain power to learn them and they could bring us back to our body and let us feel the solid ground underneath us.

We realise that doing simple movements and making easy contact with body parts in certain ways, can bring about profound relief

When that happens, we are more likely to get the unconscious message that something is dependable and that eventually we will come out of it (at least partially) and be okay. Being able to feel ourselves standing on the ground is a way of proving that there is support to be got, that we could survive what has happened.

Once again, it also gives us a sense of control when we realise that doing these simple movements and making easy contact with body parts, can be done when we want to, when we remember, or think about doing them. We now have resources and skills to help ourselves feel better in the face of such unexpected or extreme situations in the future.

How can we help ourselves?

  • We can safely and gently use touch, by ourselves, for ourselves, privately
  • We can ask someone else, someone who doesn’t have to be a professional
  • Alternatively we can ask a Shiatsu or other practitioner for a nurturing session and then ask them to teach us what we can do at home for ourselves. (At the time of writing in the UK, it is permissable to receive Shiatsu at the practitioner’s home or clinic as long as safety precautions are observed.)

Fears about receiving or trying bodywork

Some warn that bodywork from a professional can cause or bring out emotions, and so they avoid it because they don’t want to be emotional in front of people they don’t know. Sometimes there is a worry that once opened, the ‘floodgates’ will never close and then they would be unable to cope with what needs to be done at home or work afterwards, or be injured in some way. In fact, a good practitioner will ask you what you want and support you in getting that, at your own pace.

When I asked, some people told me that they found their emotions did release, but that it allowed them to show their feelings in a helpful and safe space, that it was something they wanted. Others said that they dreaded being emotional, but that actually it was cathartic and necessary. In some situations, an emotional response was reported, but not an uncontrolled one, so they were able to let it happen in private after the session, rather than in front of the bodyworker. In some instances, people expressed their feelings in words, or went away and had a chat with someone, made a drawing, wrote a poem, or visited a grave or place where they could be quiet, and so there was no embarrassment.

We are in charge, we can regulate what happens!

When we learn ways of touching for ourselves, we can choose how and when to use them and therefore stop at any time we want to.

Learning touch skills to help others

Learning touch skills for grief also means that we have something to offer those around us who are grieving. Instead of feeling useless, or not knowing how we can help, we have something, literally, at our fingertips. When there are no words that can express the sadness we feel for them, or the helplessness in the face of their upset, we have some simple and easy ways to touch which might bring relief, make a warm, human connection, and perhaps bring some succour. Always remember to ask permission before using this type of touch for someone else.

I lead a Touch for Grief session as part of The Embodiment Conference (Trauma and Social Change channel) on 24th October 2020 at 8am (UK time/ BST).

If you would like to know more about my new book Working with Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice, a guide to holistic bodywork in palliative care, or to buy a copy, please click here

A useful link about Traumatic Loss

October 2020 updated August 2022