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When Cells Cry: Grief at a Cellular Level

These three photos came to me from a dear friend – each photo is so lovely yet so different from the others, kind of like how this experience of grief is so unlike the other episodes of grief I have gone through in the past. (photo trio by Marcy Schrum)

I don’t like grief. I don’t like grief in almost the same way I don’t like death – because I don’t understand it. And when I don’t understand something, it makes me angry and then it scares me and then I just walk around feeling pissed off and jumpy.

This morning I wrote in my journal (a relatively rare occurrence these days that I reserve for really important stuff that absolutely needs to be written down),

How can I know I am grieving? 

In this question were so many other questions I didn’t write down…..

What is grief supposed to feel like and how will I know when I am feeling it?

Will there be a time when I am “done” grieving?

What if I’m not really grieving even though I think I am and this means I will never be done?

Why am I not crying? Shouldn’t I be crying if I’m grieving?

And so on and so forth.

I wrote this in my journal right after having a meditation that exposed me to something totally new I have never felt before now. The best way I can describe it is “cellular grief.”

It felt like my cells – each one of them – were crying. The tears were so deep they weren’t likely to ever reach my surface and come pouring out my eyes like usual. But they were tears all right. They were tiny little cell tears, as all 37.2 trillion of my cells poured out their hearts deep within the privacy of my skin.

This explained why my grief process this time around has felt so different from grieving days gone by.

Part of this might be because the particular trigger for this round of grief – my former partner – has been a popular headliner on my personal grief circuit in years past. It would be fair to say I am an “experienced griever” when it comes to us.

Every single other time we’ve parted ways, it has been the kind of grief I recognize and am used to. Crying, sobbing, losing your mind, wearing out your friends and your mentors and total strangers with stories of how it all went south (this time) and how painful and exhausting it all is…..this is the stuff grief memories are made of.

But this time – this time it is all so different. No crying, no incessant chatter, no desperate SOS texts to anyone who might care, not even much wine – there is really none of that going on right now. Inside me all is relatively quiet. Any actual grieving gets done late and night and early in the morning during my private hours to meditate, dream, read and sleep.

At first, I just thought I was basking in the glow of being right in choosing to separate. 

Then I thought I was being undermined in my efforts to grieve by my thyroid, a gland that is always looking for the first opening to sneak away and underperform again. After awhile, I thought I had already done all my grieving all those other times and there just wasn’t any left for this particular, more permanent slip.

But in time, I started to suspect this was a new type of grief I haven’t felt before. Because I was grieving, all right. I felt sad, soft on the inside in the way of a worn-out boxer who has no free inches of bruise-free skin for any more pummeling.

These days, I go about my days in a kind of quiet surrender. Wake, care for the flock, shower, do yoga, eat breakfast, work, eat dinner, work some more, read or watch Netflix, sleep. It’s boring, but boring can be comforting when the other alternative is more grief.

I have also noticed myself seeking out the sun every chance I get. It is the only true relief I have from an inner pressure I don’t have a name for – but it feels like I would imagine I would feel if a giant tsunami wave was just about to drown me and then it suddenly dissipated and disappeared.

That is how I feel right now when a sunbeam hits my skin. Even if it is arctic out (for Texas, anyway) if the sky is clear and the sun is shining I am bundled up and sitting on my porch or on the lawn right out in it, typing away.

After my brief journal entry this morning, I did an internet search for “cellular grief,” curious to know if someone super-smart with a science degree might have already researched and described this phenomenon. Luck was on my side. I discovered an article called “Toward a Biology of Grieving.”

As it turns out, it is from a book chapter about grief written by researchers and scientists at the National Academy of Sciences (score!). To hear these folks tell it, grief can cause changes at the cellular level, specifically with regards to brain, nervous system, immune system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system and probably every other system (it was a very long and detailed article and I confess I skimmed for highlights).

There was no specific mention of cells crying, but with all the different things in all the different brain and body systems that can apparently go wrong once grieving gets underway, I can only imagine that at some level, something like this exists. Perhaps as various substances get transferred across cell membranes, and as these processes fall out of balance, the cells hurt. And then maybe they “cry” with the pain of it all.

I don’t know. All I know is, my cells were crying this morning. I didn’t know what to do. How do you comfort grief-stricken cells? So I just witnessed. I lay there, deep inside my meditation, and witnessed these cells as they cried quietly, giving them the honor and respect they deserve for being so very brave.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever had an experience of grief that felt so unlike what you think of as grief or what you have experienced in past episodes of grief? Did it take you some time to realize you were grieving, but just in a new way? 

When Cells Cry: Grief at a Cellular Level

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). When Cells Cry: Grief at a Cellular Level. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Dec 2019
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