The physics of grief

A pair of shoes

Even when the death of a loved one was anticipated or expected, the physical, social and emotional impact of loss can still take you by surprise. Blogger Richard Littledale, whose wife Fiona was cared for by Sue Ryder, reflects on the shock of bereavement and its knock-on effects on your life.

Back in the days when ‘mix tapes’ were a thing, I had one with a Bonnie Tyler song on. In her unmistakeable gravelly tone, she would sing out with every chorus: "It’s a heartache".

To be honest, I thought the whole idea of a physical ache brought on by sadness was a piece of whimsical nonsense reserved for poets and songwriters. How wrong I was.

Seismic shock

As a Baptist minister, I have helped hundreds of people through the different stages of grief. It has been my privilege to sit alongside them as a loved one slips away, to weep with those who are left behind, and to articulate both sadness and gratitude at a graveside.

This being so, I know that bereavement is a seismic shock – penetrating all the way down to the sub-strata of human being. The ripples spread out from the core of us to every little bit of life, seemingly shaking the very ground beneath our feet.

Aching heart

Despite knowing all this, my own bereavement hit me with a force I could not have imagined.

When my wife, Fiona, died on 7th November 2017, it was harder than I would ever have thought possible.

I was expecting the tears. I was expecting the regrets about unfinished conversations. I was expecting the huge and involuntary shock of inanimate objects suffused with her presence and our memories. What I was not expecting was the physical ache of which Bonnie Tyler had sung all those years ago. And yet, there it was – a dull, persistent ache somewhere in the middle of my chest, which was a constant companion for the first couple of weeks.

Like any persistent physical pain, it chewed at the frayed edges of emotion and thought, and made me constantly tired. Even now, several months on, my physical capacity is considerably reduced, and I tire after what seems like a light day.

Busy feet

Along with the unexpected physical ache came an equally unexpected solution. Asked recently by a friend how I cope when on my own in the house and a wave of grief comes crashing in, I replied quite simply: "I walk".

Time and time again, I have found that the medicine I reach for when sadness grips is a pair of shoes. I walk. I walk round the streets. I walk round the park. I walk quickly. I walk slowly. Any which way, I walk.

It is as if the physical sensation of grief is countered by the physical act of exercise.


The other physical aspect that has surprised me during this bereavement process has been the absence of touch. When a friend hugs you, it is as if it reawakens some forgotten muscle memory of what it once meant to be held.

Fiona and I had been together all our adult lives, and you forget what a huge part touch plays in a union of two people. A hand held, a shoulder leant upon, an arm steadied – these little gestures are like a shared vocabulary.

It is as true as it is surprising to me that I have not held hands with anybody since 6th November of last year. The ‘language of touch’ becomes a little bit like the mother tongue from a country where you no longer live – even if the opportunity came to use it, you might be afraid that you would have forgotten how.

Walking in the rain

For me, these physical aspects of the bereavement experience have been unexpected – like the aching of a muscle that you didn’t even know you had. As with most muscle-aches, though – exercise is often the best solution.

I walk more than I did. I walk often in the place where Fiona’s remains are buried beneath a flowering cherry tree. I try to accept that a physical loss has physical implications and I work with them.

In Bonnie Tyler’s song, she goes on to talk about "standing in the cold rain, feeling like a clown". I try not to do that too often. If you see a man walking past in the rain though – it might well be me. That man doesn’t feel like a clown – but he is trying to do something about the way he feels. I recommend it as a technique!

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Richard Littledale

Husband of patient

Richard Littledale

Richard's wife Fiona was cared for by Sue Ryder Hospice at Home Nurses during the last few weeks of her life. Since then, he has been chronicling his journey through grief via his personal blog