The Grieving Brain

“Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together and transforming our relationship with this person who has died.” 

Why is it so difficult for us to comprehend that a person is gone forever? Why do some people adapt better than others? How can we rebuild a meaningful life after loss?

Anyone who has grieved knows how intensely personal it is and yet, all of us go through it eventually. O’Connor lost her mother at a young age and so everything she researches, she also absorbs and applies to her own experience with loss. The same will be true for her readers.

The traditional model of the five stages of grief – grieving, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has held sway for decades. The model’s prescriptive state has made many of us feel like we’re somehow grieving wrong. O’Connor takes this apart. Her research shows how fluid these states are. We may feel some, we may feel all, we may go back and forth between different states or feel them all at once. There are no rules, and being under the impression that there’s a ‘right’ way to go through the experience can be harmful.

This book posits grieving as a type of learning. By understanding what is happening in the brain, we can navigate grief better. At the crux of this is the theory of the brain as a problem-solving and predictive machine. Our brain maps where our loved ones are in the physical world. The hippocampus creates these virtual maps. We can picture them in the next room or on the other side of the world. When a loved one dies, our brains cannot map the lack of location. “It struggles to learn new information that cannot be ignored like the absence of our loved one.”

In one experiment, rats are fitted with headgear that logs firing neurons tracks as they move through a location marked with landmarks like a blue Lego tower. When the tower is removed, the neurons continue to fire at the location where the tower used to be. In our brains, neurons fire at the sight of an object (called object cells) but also when the object is not there (object-trace cells). These neurons take time to adapt and stop firing in the absence of the object. “Virtual reality had to be updated to match the real world, but it takes time.” When someone dies, our brain expects to track them in the real world and takes time to adapt to knowing that they won’t be in the physical world with us again. 

This mapping takes place in three dimensions – space (here), time (now) and the third, called closeness (attachment). Closeness is how we track “where” our loved ones are in relation to ourselves. A death trips up the brain, because that person is no longer in any dimension that the brain tracks. This explains why searching for someone, or holding and smelling their things after they have died is common. However, there is a key difference between being in the present and remembering the past, or trying to live in the past as if time has stopped. “Your brain continues note the fact that your loved one is no longer present day after day and uses that information to update its predictions about whether they will be there tomorrow” Hence, time heals. 

The author differentiates between the state of grief and grieving. Grieving is the process while grief is the emotion – the moment that happens again and again. Whereas “grieving has a trajectory,” grief never ends. You can still feel the loss of your person forever. O’Connor explores the idea of the self as overlapping with another. In this context, the feeling of losing a part of yourself when a loved one dies is very real.

This applies to grief over the loss of a partner, a friend, a child, even a job, all the way to the death of a celebrity. Grief over a public figure is called para social grief. We do form an attachment bond to public figures that we admire. In a fascinating dissection, she looks at how they meet our attachment needs.

The Dual Process Model of Coping is a huge breakthrough in modelling the experience of grief. It identifies two types of stressors – loss-oriented and restoration orientated. For example, when a partner dies, we feel the emotional stress of their loss, but also the loss of the person who may have done the housework or groceries or taxes. We now have to navigate these tasks without them, thus having to reorient ourselves. It is depicted as a jagged experience flitting between the loss-oriented actions and restoration oriented instead of a neat line of progress. 

People have different adaptation trajectories during grieving. There are four main types – resilient, chronic grieving, chronic depression, depressed improved. The explanations take into account pre-existing emotional conditions like depression and how long these states last. Resilience is thankfully a trait that can be learned and improved in life. It is the most typical pattern response to grieving but the other models will be helpful to anyone who has felt unable to climb out of the fog. 

One of the best bits is about us navigating positive and negative emotions after a loss.  “The “undoing” of negative emotions with positive emotions works because positive emotions change cognitive and physiological states.” Yet, we feel guilt and often avoid activities that make us feel good in the wake of a loss. We think doing fun stuff is not the right way to act, we feel guilty and we are concerned about what other people will think of us. But we’re not very good at predicting how we will feel in the future.

Rumination is when we can’t process, and we get stuck in worry. It’s a type of avoidance. We’re not feeling the grief when we’re letting our thoughts run in a loop. “Restoring a meaningful life requires flexibly moving our attention from thinking about the past to thinking about the present and the future. It requires being able to move our thoughts from relationships that were, to relationships that are and relationships that could be, and back again” Strengthening an existing bond with someone you already know is more healing because bringing someone new into your life can trigger feelings of guilt and grief.

 We do not forget and we do not love less, but we can broaden our life to include meaningful relationships with others – more friends, other family and so on.

O’Connor returns to what Buddhists and happiness studies and all the modern spiritual gurus say – be present, be fully mindful in the present. “The present offers us possibility. For example, it offers other members of our species. And only in the present moment can you feel comfort and joy. You cannot feel those things in the past or the future.” We cannot choose to ignore upsetting feelings. If we numb ourselves, we numb both the good and the bad. We can use avoidance but it doesn’t last forever. It catches up to us. Love has changed the physical makeup of our brain, they are indeed a part of us.

The writing is sensitive and clear – open, kind and gentle. It enables us to understand what someone we know is going through when they are grieving. The author says it’s not intended to give practical advice, but it does offer insight that helps in that context.

Death and grief are an integral part of the time on this planet. Why not look at it, understand it and remove the shroud of fear and loneliness that surrounds it. Nothing can prepare us for death, but we can prepare our minds for the task of learning to live with it. We can read, we can discuss, we can imagine, we can inform and teach ourselves so that there is an awareness, a pre-recorded neural pathway that will hopefully make the journey of grieving and adaptation a little easier when the time comes.

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