Eat, Sleep, Breathe: Healing My Grieving Heart

I had always approached pretty much most of life’s challenges from an intellectual perspective. If there was a book (or several books!) or a TED talk, seminar or course I could read, watch or attend, I was reasonably confident I would be equipped for the task at hand.

But then there was grief.

Grief does not lend itself to a tidy outline or a lecture. Grief is a physiological journey as much as an emotional and spiritual one. Grief is a corporeal takeover — the insomnia, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the tears and mood swings, the cravings and the loss of appetite, the panic attacks, the gastrointestinal distress, the inability to focus, the difficulty breathing. It can throw every function out of whack. Grief, like pregnancy, is a total body experience, but without the party games, the cute baby clothes or a due date.

The jagged edges of my broken heart pierced all the other biological systems. I should not have been so surprised; everything is connected. For weeks, my therapist focused on whether I was eating, sleeping and breathing. No healing was going to happen until those body basics were covered. She knows I’m more at home in my rational mind than my emotional one, but grief was a problem I could not think my way through. I would have to let my feelings guide me through this scary, uncomfortable territory, feelings that have a home in the body.

We begin with the simple human needs: eat, sleep, breathe. My grieving heart finds comfort and hope within an anatomy embraced with tender, attentive care.

Eat. It’s hard enough to eat healthy, and there are more than enough nutritional theories to go around, which I will not debate here. Bottom line: Even with a refrigerator full of comfort food, I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in the first three months after Sam’s death, and nobody would argue that this approach was particularly beneficial.

I had to find my way back toward nurturing the body that takes me around in this life. Mercifully, the body can be a marvelous teacher, if I am willing to be attentive. I found my balance. Sometimes that looks like kale salad or beet juice. Often that means dark chocolate and Pinot noir. Always gratitude.

Sleep. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that a good night’s sleep is key to mental and physical health. I didn’t need to read any of it to know that after a few sleepless nights, my capacity deteriorated on every front. I had never before experienced that combination of exhaustion and insomnia. It seemed like anyone I knew who was even remotely qualified to do so offered to write me a prescription for something to induce sleep. I initially resisted, but soon I began to appreciate that a full night’s shut-eye would go a long way toward my recovery. Sometimes, I just had to tuck myself into bed and let myself fall asleep.

Breathe. My mantra, then and now, remains: “Inhale, exhale, repeat as necessary.” Breathing might mean a long walk, a short run, a steep hike or a pedicure. This breathing might present in the form of a long sit, a guided meditation or a silent prayer. It almost always looks like yoga, whether cat, cow, tree, warrior or child’s pose. Even corpse pose is a great place to breathe; flat on the ground, held and supported by the earth, I remember I have the gift of this moment, this life, this miraculous body, both broken and blessed.

When life goes sideways and my heart needs tending, I turn toward this foundation of healing: eat, sleep, breathe. The body holds incredible wisdom and remarkable healing powers. When I can incorporate my losses with tangible gentleness, I bring peace to my suffering heart and engage the human capacity for hope and light.

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