How the Brain Rewires After Losing a Loved One

The following is an excerpt from The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn About Love and Loss by Mary Frances O’Connor.

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The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn About Love and Loss

Neuroscience is not necessarily the discipline that comes to mind when one thinks of grief, and certainly when my quest began it was even less so. Over my years of study and research, I have come to realize that the brain has a problem to deal with when a loved one dies. This is not a trivial problem. Losing our uniqueness upsets us, because we need our loved ones as much as we need food and water.

Fortunately, the brain is good at solving problems. In fact, the brain exists precisely for this function. After decades of research, I realized that the brain puts a lot of effort into mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so we can find them when we need them. And the brain often prefers habits and predictions to new information. But he struggles to learn new information that cannot be ignored, such as the absence of our loved one. Grieving requires the difficult task of discarding the map we used to navigate our lives with our loved one and transforming our relationship with that deceased person. Grieving, or learning to live a meaningful life without the loved one, is ultimately a type of learning. Because learning is something we do all our lives, seeing grief as a type of learning can make it more familiar and understandable and give us the patience to allow this remarkable process to unfold.

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How grief rewires the brain

When I talk to students or clinicians or even people sitting next to me on a plane, I find that they have burning questions about grief. They ask: Is grief the same as depression? When people don’t show their grief, is it because they’re in denial? Is the loss of a child worse than the loss of a spouse? Then, very often, they ask me this type of question: I know someone whose mother/brother/best friend/husband died, and after six weeks/four months/eighteen months/ten years, he still feels sorrow. Is this normal?

After many years, it has occurred to me that the assumptions behind people’s questions demonstrate that grief researchers have failed to disseminate what they have learned. This is what motivated me to write this book. I am steeped in what psychologist and grief researcher George Bonanno has called the new science of mourning. The type of grief I focus on in this book applies to those who have lost a spouse, child, best friend, or anyone they were close to. I also explore other losses, like losing a job, or the pain we feel when a celebrity we greatly admire and have never met dies. I offer reflections to those of us who are close to a grieving person, to help us understand what is happening to them. This is not a book of practical advice, yet many who have read it tell me that they learned things they can apply to their own experience of loss.

The brain has always fascinated mankind, but new methods allow us to look inside this black box, and what we can see tempts us with possible answers to old questions. That said, I don’t believe that a neuroscientific perspective on grief is better than a sociological, religious, or anthropological perspective. I say this sincerely, even though I have devoted an entire career to the neurobiological lens. I believe our understanding of grief through a neurobiological lens can enhance our understanding, create a more holistic view of grief, and help us engage in new ways with the angst and terror of what grief is. Neuroscience is part of the conversation of our time. By understanding the myriad aspects of grief, by focusing in more detail on how brain circuits, neurotransmitters, behaviors and emotions are engaged during grief, we have the opportunity to empathize with a new way with those who are currently suffering. We can allow ourselves to feel grief, allow others to feel grief, and understand the experience of grief, all with more compassion and hope.

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You may have noticed that I use the terms pain and in mourning. Although you will hear them used interchangeably, I make an important distinction between them. On the one hand there is pain—the intense emotion crashing over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, impossible to ignore. Grieving is a time that keeps coming back. However, these moments are distinct from what I call in mourning, the word I use to refer to the process, not the moment, of grieving. Grief has a trajectory. Obviously, grief and bereavement are linked, which is why the two terms have been used interchangeably to describe our experience of loss. But there are key differences. You see, grief never ends, and it’s a natural response to loss. You will experience pangs of grief for that specific person forever. You will experience low-key moments that will overwhelm you, even years after death, when you have given your life back a meaningful and fulfilling experience. But, while you will forever feel the universally human emotion of grief, your grief, your coping, changes the experience over time. The first hundred times you have a wave of grief, you may think, I’ll never get over it, I can’t take it. The hundred and first time, you might be thinking, I hate this, I don’t want this, but this is familiar, and I know I’m going to get through this moment. Even though the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes. Feeling grief years after your loss can make you doubt that you have truly adjusted. If you see emotion and the process of coping as two different things, then that’s not a problem you’re having. pain even when you were in mourning for a long time.

You can think of our journey together through this book as a series of mysteries that we solve, with Part I organized around grief and Part II around bereavement. Each chapter addresses a specific issue. Chapter 1 asks: Why is it so hard to understand that the person is dead and gone forever? Cognitive neuroscience helps me answer this question. Chapter 2 asks the question: Why does grief evoke so many emotions? Why do we feel such sadness, anger, blame, guilt and longing? Here I bring attachment theory, including our neural attachment system. Chapter 3 builds on the answers from the first two chapters with a follow-up question: why does it take so long to realize that our loved one is gone forever? I explain the multiple forms of knowledge that our brain holds simultaneously to think through this puzzle. In Chapter 4, we have enough information to dig into a main question: what happens in the brain during mourning? However, to understand the answer to this question, we also consider: how has our understanding of grief changed over the history of grief science? Chapter 5 examines with more nuance why some people cope better than others when they lose a loved one, and asks the question: What are the complications of complicated grief? Chapter 6 explains why it hurts so much when we lose that particular beloved person. This is a chapter about how love works and how our brain enables the bonding that happens in relationships. Chapter 7 is about what we can do when we are overwhelmed with grief. I rely on clinical psychology to deepen the answers to this question.

In Part II, we discuss the subject of grief and how we might restore a meaningful life. Chapter 8 asks: Why do we ruminate so much after losing a loved one? Changing what we spend our time thinking about can change our neural connections and increase our chances of learning to live a meaningful life. However, moving away from focusing on the past brings us to the question of chapter 9: Why would we engage in our life in the present moment, if it is full of sorrow? The answer includes the idea that only in the present moment can we also experience joy and common humanity, and express love to our living loved ones. From past to present, in chapter 10 we look to the future and ask: How can our grief ever change, if the person will never return? Our brain is remarkable, allowing us to imagine an infinite number of future possibilities, if we harness this ability. Chapter 11 concludes with what cognitive psychology can contribute to our understanding of grief as a form of learning. Embracing the mindset that grief is a form of learning, and that we are all learning all the time, can make the winding path of grief more familiar and hopeful.

Think of this book as having three characters. The most important character is your brain, marvelous in its ability and enigmatic in its process. It’s the part of you that hears and sees what happens when your loved one dies and wonders what to do next. Your brain is at the center of the story, built from centuries of evolution and hundreds of thousands of hours of your own personal experience of love and loss. The second character is the science of grief, a young field full of charismatic scientists and clinicians, and the false starts and exciting discoveries of any scientific endeavor. The third and final character is me, a mourner and a scientist, because I want you to trust me as your guide. My own experiences of loss are not that unusual, but through my life’s work, I hope you can see through a new lens how your brain allows you to carry your loved one with you throughout your life. life.

Extract of The grieving brain by Mary-Frances O’Connor and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

Meet the writer

Mary Frances O’Connor

About Mary Frances O’Connor

Mary Frances O’Connor is a neuroscientist and author of The grieving brain. She is based in Tucson, Arizona.

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