Grief is a complicated process. We all acknowledge that it is a natural part of life, yet most of us feel ill-equipped to deal with our own losses and the grief of others. We don’t know what to say, how to act, how to offer support, or, when the grief is our own, how to ask for help. The Grieving Brain By Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor focuses on the science of how the brain learns from love and loss.
“For as long as there have been human relationships, we have struggled with the overwhelming nature of grief following the death of a loved one. Poets, writers, and artists have given us moving renderings of the almost indescribable nature of loss, an amputation of a part of ourselves, or an absence that weighs on us like a heavy cloak. As human beings we seem compelled to try to communicate what our grief is like…”
-Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD
In The Grieving Brain, Dr. O’Connor discusses Evolutionary Survival. Maybe you’re wondering why humans even grieve in the first place. Scientifically speaking, children that experience grief were more likely to wait for a caretakers’ return. Children that didn’t grieve their caretakers’ absence would more often go towards dangerous experiences alone. Understanding this shows how the experience of grief is an advantage for a child’s survival. Dr. O’Connor mentions that our need for people we love is a basic human need for attachment. When we as humans are socially isolated, we are at an increased risk for early death. By loving someone and avoiding social isolation, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of their death and the grief which accompanies it. Importantly, Dr. O’Connor explains how the process of grieving allows us to grow. The trajectory of grieving allows us to strengthen our bond with others, forge new and meaningful relationships, and healthily restructure our relationship with those who we are grieving.
It is important to understand that our brains rely on familiar habits and predictions. Think of small routines that you may do daily, such as drinking a cup of coffee, calling a friend, making your children breakfast. Over time, these daily occurrences become so ingrained in our lives that we do not even question their likelihood of occurring. These habits essentially form a trusty map we regularly use and rely on to navigate our lives. So, when we experience a loss, we see it as a sudden disruption to our reliable routine, and ultimately, as a permanent end to the way we have lived our lives. Grief is like throwing away that trusty map. Dr. O’Connor urges us to treat grieving as a new type of learning. Doing so can transform the abruptness and fear of facing loss into something more understandable and familiar. Essentially, we must learn to restructure our life around the new knowledge that someone who used to be a fixed part of our routine has suddenly left. Our relationship to a person changes with death and so must the virtual map we rely so heavily on to live.
Dr. O’Connor explains that our brains have object-trace cells, which are activated when we register the presence of something even though it is not physically there. As such, it is not surprising when people say they feel or see loved ones, especially soon after their death. Even in their absence, our brains are still registering our loved ones’ presence. Our brains are filling in the blanks based on the embedded chain of events we’ve been relying on every day of our lives. As the brain struggles to adapt to the new routines after a loss, we are constantly being brought a fresh wave of grief every time we are reminded of the changes. Dr. O’Connor says that yes, time does heal, but in actuality, it has more to do with experience than time. During the process of grieving, the brain must slowly learn to adapt our virtual map and update it from new, learned experiences.
Dimensions of Love
Dr. O’Connor explains dimensions of how we understand our loved ones, including: here (space), now (time), and closeness (psychological closeness). She writes that a painful piece of grief is experiencing a loss of our own identity. Essentially, we feel as if we lost a piece of ourselves and are forever changed. Think of a phantom limb as a loved one’s death- both the limb and your loved one overlap with your idea of self. Because the brain has yet to rewire itself, the sensations of a phantom limb persist, and you struggle to adapt. Grief also takes the brain a while to understand and rewire itself. Your sense of self and who you are changes in an instant with death.
Our brain might even read the loss of our loved one on the “closeness” dimension as them being upset with us- as if we have wronged or hurt them. There is no chance for a conversation or a resolution in death. Our brain can trick us into thinking we failed in our role to keep our loved ones close. Dr. O’Connor explains how our neurons encode different distances. Our brain uses a common code for proximity to oneself, regardless of the dimension: time, space, or psychological closeness. Studies show that the ephemeral sense of closeness with our loved ones actually exists in the physical, tangible hardwiring of our brain.
Complications with Grief
Grief can become a serious hindrance when there is a prolonged and overwhelming amount of distress caused by one’s loss. Dr. O’Connor speaks about Complicated Grief Disorder and the problematic side of grief. Complicated grief is found to be associated with lower overall cognitive functioning and poorer information processing speed, as well as significantly less brain volume. People may also experience anger and enter the mindset of “would’ve”, “should’ve”, “could’ve” alternatives to their past. Rumination distracts people and leads to more intense grief symptoms.
There are multiple forms of treatment to target grief. For instance, Complicated grief treatment (CGT) targets the disorder’s symptoms and gives patients homework that focuses on rumination and counterfactual thinking. A treatment for complicated grief focuses on building a toolkit of strategies. The toolkit is to be used when revisiting overwhelming emotions and includes working on the acceptance of one’s reality and one’s self-compassion in the face of suffering. Exposure therapy allows the patient to revisit the death in a therapeutic context. Doing so prevents the patients from challenging their reality and allows the counterfactual thinking of the infinite “if only’s” to fade away. Meditation focuses on building a synchronization between the body’s executive control network and its default. Another important way to remain in the present is through cultural rituals. This allows us to connect our outer behaviors of bereavement in the present with our inner thoughts of the deceased (i.e., lighting a candle, leaving flowers). These commemorative actions that are physically done in the present allow us to begin an upward trajectory of healing.
The Grieving Toolkit
The possession of a grieving toolkit allows us to be flexible in our approach. Everyone is different and there is never one ‘correct’ method to handle grief. Instead, the best predictor of good mental health, while in the struggle of grieving, is the possession of a large toolkit of strategies to deploy as needed.
One tool is human connection. Human connection is vital to regulate grief’s emotions and to work on attaining a vibrant life. To know that everyone must grieve and that no one is spared from death unites us in our connection as humans. Dr. O’Connor says when we feel grief “we are suddenly joined by hundreds of people who have known grief, from ancestors to neighbors to strangers.” Hope is also important for grieving and is vital to the field of psychology. It is a positive emotion and an important tool in our grieving toolkit. Sharing happy and funny stories is a good way to acknowledge the loss and process it in a way that brings joy to those bereaved. Positive emotions broaden people’s attention and increase creative thinking. Being involved in positive, happy opportunities can aid in people’s grieving journey.
Remember, in the face of a loss, the most important tools are to stay connected and give yourself grace. It’s important to stay in the present, be flexible, avoid rumination and counterfactual thinking, connect with your friends and family- to lean on them for support, and to keep hope alive. Dr. O’Connor explains that grief changes the rules of the game. We must learn to change our virtual maps in the face of tragedy. Expanding your toolkit and focusing on human connection is vital. Even if some of your social engagement doesn’t always make you feel better, humanity aches for connection. Sharing your grief with others is a beautiful way to accept reality, honor your loved one, and move forward in your new sense of self.
Death Gives Life Meaning
The reason life has meaning is because it ends. Mortality makes us cherish our life, the people around us, and all of our memories. Every person is an expert on their own life and their own mental health. Although you may feel alone, the human experiences of grief, and its pain, bring us together. A new type of learning must occur in the brain as it learns from love and loss, but this is all part of living and being a part of humanity.
Although the person we love will physically leave this world one day, I want to remind us of a quote from Dr. O’Connor: “because your loved one existed, your neurons fired together in a certain way and certain proteins are folded in particular ways in your brain”. With this in mind, your loved ones still exist in the physical wiring of your brain. Your loved ones will always exist within you, whether it be physically in your brain’s structure, in your personality or sense of self, or in your memories. Your loved ones are never truly gone. Need some extra help in your grief?
Feel free to reach out to our office, and we will connect you with some support.