Griefstroke - symptoms and remedies
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
So, July has arrived in the UK and, fairly unexpectedly, in the second week we got hit with sun. Intense, hot, burn-the-fair-skinned, sun. This lasted for about 4-5 days, then it went cloudy and sort of warm, and then the heat is supposed to return again this weekend with more fierce, put-out-lots-of-weather-warnings sun again. For us that’s a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius, a ‘scorcher’ as we call it in the UK, which is about 89 degrees Fahrenheit. Now I know some of you will be smiling to yourself or even laughing out loud that this is something that causes us weather warnings and makes us check up on the old folk, but you have to remember we are not an air-conditioned country, so when this heat hits, it’s not pretty. My husband, Chris, and I will inevitably have the sheet battle during the night to see if can stay on the bed, over whichever one of us actually wants some coverage. Last night I actually had the thought in the dark - ‘Where are those plastic lemons that you hang off tablecloths outdoors on little clips to stop the wind lifting the edges? They’d work well on this sheet on the bed’. It’s still not the daftest idea I’ve had in the small hours between sleep.
Anyway, as I was mooching around in my 9-year-old shorts (there’s not much call to replace them too often in this country) breathing in the warm, stuffy air, I was musing on how hard it is to escape heat when it’s literally in your lungs, and it made me realise, it’s a bit like the feelings that accompany grief and loss. And as you hopefully know by now (if you listen to the podcast) loss can apply to anything at all, not just bereavements. It might be the loss of a favourite podcast that was a valuable part of your week and suddenly stopped, your last child going off to school for the first time, maybe leaving behind a job or career you adored, letting go of the future you thought you’d have, or the health you hoped you’d reach one day.
So think about it, heat is suffocating, uncomfortable, exhausting, frustrating and for some unending. Sound familiar?
Well, I’ve looked up the symptoms of heatstroke to see how similar it is to going through grief, and whether the remedies for heatstroke might actually guide us on treating grief as well. It’s a work in progress as I write this, so let’s see how it goes…
First up on my list of symptoms of heatstroke:
HEADACHE / LOSS OF APPETITE / FEELING SICK
Tick. Now when it comes to stress and generally taking on too much or going through a lot, I think most of us can be split into one of two groups. We have the headache people, and the stomach ache people. I am, and will always be, a stomach ache person. If something in my body is going to freak out, usually unnecessarily and independently from my brain, it’s my digestive system. My digestive system is so sensitive to emotions and stress that it bypasses the fight stage completely and goes straight to flight, and just like the birds that sit on my fence, it likes to make sure it empties itself in preparation for the flight. Regardless of whether there’s even anything to worry about in my head. And one thing we all know about grief, it’s heavy on the emotions and stress side of things, so we’re talking headaches and stomach aches, no appetite, feeling sick, all of the above.
DIZZINESS / CONFUSION
Having spoken to as many people as I have on the podcast I can confirm that confusion is definitely in the mix when it comes to grief. It’s a time that re-shifts everything, your perspective, your priorities, your love, your anger, your relationships… How could that not be confusing and then cause dizziness.
As I was typing the last paragraph a tortoiseshell butterfly flew into the room through the open window and fluttered around the glass before leaving again. I watched his confusion, it was exactly what I was typing, much like in grief he was confused and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t move forwards, unable to see or move the glass, a perfect illustration and I have no doubt he left with a bit of dizziness as well.
I have to admit when I first read this I thought it said excessive ‘swearing’ which might actually be more appropriate for grief. When people are too hot you often hear choice swear words on the air, usually caused by the excessive sweating. This may also be a stage people move through with their grief, especially if there is anger or injustice attached to their loss. As for the sweating, well, as yet I’ve not had a person in grief utter the words, ‘It’s just the endless, excessive sweating that’s getting to me.’
People have reported tightness in their chest or throat and aches and pains as part of the physical side effects of grief. I have no doubt that the pain of losing someone, as it manifests in the body, might often feel like a cramp or spasm in a particular area of the body. You know when you get that cramp in your foot and your toes decide to stretch themselves in opposite directions and hold the pose, taking all control away from you? Well, grief can be like that, it controls parts of your body in a way you can’t take back and there’s nothing you can do about it.
QUICKENED BREATHING OR PULSE
Tick. The heart is the centre of our body and often the centre of our grief, so it is natural for it to affect us physically and emotionally. Grief can also cause stress which affects blood vessels, blood pressure and hormones. There is a condition of the heart called ‘takotsubo cardiomyopathy’ which is also called (and easier to say) ‘broken heart syndrome’. The word ‘takotsubo’ is taken from a pot used by Japanese fishermen to trap octopuses, because the left ventricle of the heart changes shape, developing a narrow neck and round bottom like the octopus trap. Its symptoms feel and look like a heart attack but it seems to be caused by distress, an example of which could be grief.
This one I’m not sure about and haven’t personally experienced or heard of anyone talking about with regards to grief. I’d be interested in feedback for anyone listening who found grief and thirst were connected in that way. I suspect if anything, people grieving might forget to drink, a by-product of which would be - becoming thirsty. So if you want a sort of tenuous link, there it is.
Again I have no evidence temperature is affected by grief, so this one doesn’t fully line up with my theory, so if I want this experiment to be perfect I should probably take it off my list and pretend it doesn’t exist as a symptom…
ALTERED MENTAL STATE OR BEHAVIOUR
Confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, coma. Ah ha! We’ll ignore the coma sneaking his way on the end of the list there, but let’s be honest, griefy people (a new word I learnt from Carol Tyler in this week’s Silent Why episode) can do some crazy… stuff. As a by note, did you know if you swear on a podcast you have to mark it ‘explicit’ and then there’s a whole bunch of countries that won’t permit it to be streamed in their country? Fun fact for you. But back to griefy people being weird. Yes, grief makes people do some bizarre stuff and if you chat to enough of them, after enough time has passed from their grief, you can have a good old laugh about it too. So this is a big red tick.
Apparently heatstroke symptoms are largely the same for adults and children, except children might become floppy and sleepy with heatstroke. Well, I know for a fact that grief can make people floppy and sleepy so I’m bunging that one in there too. ‘Griefy, floppy, sleepy people’ might actually be the name of my first book based on the podcast!
So if they’re the symptoms of heatstroke, and we can agree that they’re largely the same as the symptoms of griefstroke (except griefstroke has a whole bunch more fun stuff thrown in too), how can we help someone facing it?
According to my searching, the first thing you do for heatstroke is to ‘cool someone down’, which is interesting because he first thing you do for griefstroke is to ‘sit someone down’. A common command for people in grief or about to be told something griefy. ‘Are you sitting down?’ I can only assume enough people fell off their feet at the sound of bad news that from then onwards it was collectively decided that if you were about to deliver bad news you were to first check the recipient was sitting down.
Remedies for heatstroke include: MOVE THEM TO A COOL PLACE This might not be the best idea for someone in grief. For a few reasons; they may already be cold, you might not have a cool place to hand (fridge, garage, air-con car not recommended) and they just might not want to be moved. So I’m marking this down as something not to do if a person is grieving.
GET THEM TO LIE DOWN AND ELEVATE THEIR FEET SLIGHTLY I haven’t been directly around a lot of people in the immediate aftermath of grief, but I’m fairly sure if I tried to make them lie down and then shoved a cushion under their feet, I might get the cushion returned to me at force. Probably best to just leave them in whatever position they’re in and not manhandle them into another position that suits you.
GET THEM TO DRINK WATER Well, this is probably something they should be doing, but again, griefy people can be sensitive and just like the cushion debacle I suggest ‘getting’ them to drink water might resort in you wearing it. But offering them a drink and placing a glass of water next to them can never be a bad thing, so it does offer some useful advice here. And being hydrated is always important for everyone in every situation.
COOL THEIR SKIN Suggestions here include spraying them with water or sponging them or fanning them, with the additional tip of putting cold packs under the armpits or around the neck. I think you can see where this is going. If you can’t, let’s picture the scene, shall we? You’ve turned up to be with a friend who has just gone through a terrible loss, it’s early days, they’re in the middle of their grief and you find them sat in a dark lounge with red eyes, unable to focus on much or say anything. After opening the curtains to let a bit of light in, you find a useful article on your phone that suggests grief is actually very similar to heatstroke, so you look down the ways to help them and decide on the following action. Leaving them in the room you go and fetch a glass of water, but no amount of trying to force this into their hand or their face seems to be helping, in fact you think they look a bit worse now and maybe angry, so you realise they probably need to calm down. Fetching the water spray they use for the plants, you gently spray their face, while sponging their hair with a soaked dish cloth you found in the sink. Stepping back you realise they don’t appear to be cooling down any time soon, in fact their face is even redder, so you fetch the cold packs from the freezer and thrust them into their armpits. Get the picture? This is not going to do anything except possibly get yourself killed. Remember, griefy people are very confused, agitated, irritable and prone to an altered mental state or uncharacteristic behaviour.
The last suggestion to help is a winner though.
STAY WITH THEM UNTIL THEY FEEL BETTER Now you can’t exactly stay with someone until the grief passes, well, you could, but you might need to clear your diary for a year or two, maybe even a decade, but you can get them to a place where they feel ok to be alone again, or arrange support for when you can’t be there. When we’re ill, whether physically, mentally or emotionally, the knowledge that someone is there if we need them is huge. The fact is, for grief, you often don’t need to do anything, you just need to be there. As Clarissa Moll said in her interview with us - learn how to be ‘uncomfortably present’ around people that are grieving. It’s not always comfortable, but embracing that and learning how to be ok with being uncomfortable, while still being present is such a gift to the person who is sad.
And if you want further help on how to be around people who are grieving and what to say and not say, do and not do, check out the episode and blog called ‘How to talk to the grieving’.
So, what did we learn here? Yes, grief is like heatstroke. No, the way you treat it is not the same.
But we have learnt it’s important to not shove anything in the armpits of griefy people, and if that helps just one grieving person today. My work is done.