Physical symptoms are a natural part of the grieving process. The symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and tiredness. People who are grieving may also have a temporarily higher risk of cardiovascular conditions.

The information above comes from a 2022 article.

In addition to physical symptoms, people can experience other effects, such as sadness, loneliness, and difficulty concentrating. However, there are coping strategies that may help.

This article examines the physical symptoms of grief, how long they might last, and advice on coping.

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Yes, grief can cause physical symptoms. This is a typical part of the response to the loss of a loved one.

The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that grief has links to poorer physical health and increased visits to the doctor. In many cases, though, the effects become less frequent and less intense over time.

Some common physical effects of grief include:

  • Tiredness: Grief often makes people feel tired or fatigued. This typically comes in waves, along with other symptoms.
  • Sleep disturbances: Insomnia is a common symptom of grief. According to a 2020 review, sleep disturbances affect people who have experienced bereavement 20–30% more than those who have not. People who are grieving may also experience changes in their dreams.
  • Changes in appetite: Grief can cause a loss of appetite for some. Others may want to eat more than usual when they are grieving.
  • Hallucinations: Grief hallucinations occur when a person feels they can see, touch, hear, or sense the presence of a deceased person. These hallucinations are common after a bereavement and can occur unexpectedly when a person is asleep or awake. While some may find them comforting, a 2018 study suggests they may be more common in people experiencing higher levels of psychological distress.

People can also experience the stress response, which some refer to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, as a result of grief. This may occur if the person is anxious about losing a loved one, feels afraid of death, or if the loss was sudden and traumatic. The stress response causes:

Learn more about the fight, flight, or freeze response.

In addition to the immediate physical symptoms of grief, people who are grieving can also experience changes in their health on a deeper level. Grief can impact the following body systems:

Cardiovascular system

A 2014 study involving 30,447 people experiencing partner bereavement suggests those in this situation may have a higher incidence of a fatal or nonfatal heart attack or stroke in the months after the loss. The study found that the increased risk lasted for 30 days, but the risk of less common heart effects lingered for 90 days.

Another cardiovascular complication with links to grief is atrial fibrillation, which is a serious heart rhythm disturbance. It is also possible to develop takosubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” following a bereavement. This condition occurs due to severe emotional or physical stress.

These conditions may be more likely to occur in people who are already at risk of cardiovascular disease.

Immune system

A 2019 review found links between bereavement and impaired immunity against infections. The researchers found that grieving people had:

  • higher levels of inflammation
  • lower antibody responses to vaccines
  • maladaptive immune cell gene expression, which is a malfunction in certain genes that influence immunity

However, the authors note that more high quality research is necessary to understand this.

Grief may affect a person emotionally, socially, spiritually, and cognitively.

Initially, a person may experience shock or denial about the loss. They may later experience periods of:

  • sadness
  • fear or anxiety
  • guilt
  • anger
  • apathy
  • loneliness

Mentally, they may experience the following:

  • thoughts about the person’s death
  • difficulty concentrating
  • trouble making decisions
  • a change in their sense of identity

Socially, a person experiencing grief may become irritable, withdrawn, or isolated.

It is important to note that the symptoms of grief can be similar to the symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. People can also have these conditions at the same time as experiencing grief.

One of the main differences between mental health conditions and grief is that the symptoms of grief tend to come in waves, coming and going over time.

According to experts, the grieving process lasts somewhere between 6 months to 2 years for many people. Current definitions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) suggest that when symptoms of grief last longer than this, it could signal a mental health condition.

For example, a person may be experiencing a different psychological condition, such as depression. Alternatively, they may be experiencing prolonged grief disorder, which the DSM-5-TR describes as intense and persistent grief that significantly impacts a person’s ability to function.

A 2020 study involving 20,453 adults found that approximately one-third experienced severe grief in response to losing a loved one. The authors found an association between severe grief and a higher level of self-reported health problems.

Learn more about prolonged grief.

It is important to allow oneself to experience and process grief, as experts suggest resisting or trying to ignore it may prolong symptoms.

The American Psychological Association recommends taking the following steps:

  • Talking about it: Talking about the death of a loved one or their life may help someone understand and come to terms with the loss.
  • Acknowledging feelings: An array of emotions is natural during the grieving process. It is best to try to recognize these feelings and allow them to come and go.
  • Celebrating the life of the loved one: This can take various forms, such as holding a memorial, scrapbooking, or planting a garden in the loved one’s memory.
  • Practicing self-care: Grief can make a person feel uninterested in food, exercise, and other things that can improve health and well-being. However, prioritizing these habits as much as possible may offset the effects that grief may have on health.
  • Helping others: Spending time with other loved ones of the deceased can be mutually beneficial, helping people feel connected and supported.

If a person develops new or unexplained physical symptoms, it is important to speak with a doctor. The doctor can perform tests to determine the underlying cause and rule out serious conditions.

If symptoms appear suddenly and suggest a person may have a heart condition, they should dial 911 right away. Potential signs of a cardiovascular condition include:

If the symptoms are grief-related, a person can consider speaking with a grief counselor or therapist. This is especially important if the symptoms are long lasting and do not improve.

Grief can put some people at risk of depression or suicidal thoughts. If this happens, it is best for a person to reach out for help as soon as possible. Information on resources is available below.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Click here for more links and local resources.

Physical symptoms of grief can include difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, hallucinations, and tiredness. These symptoms are common and a typical part of the grieving process.

Usually, physical symptoms of grief come and go over time, gradually improving over the course of a few months or years. Grief can also affect other aspects of health, including emotional, social, and mental health.

It is best for people who are concerned about their symptoms or having difficulty coping with grief to speak with a doctor or counselor.