Your Brain on Grief

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Why does grief hurt so much? 

Mary-Frances O’Connor’s new book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss attempts to answer this question and more through neuroscience and personal stories of bereavement. 

Dr. O’Connor, a clinical psychologist, directs the Grief, Loss, and Social Stress Lab at the University of Arizona. She studies the effects of grief on the brain and body. Her findings show how the brain’s hormones and neurochemicals produce this aching and seemingly unbearable sensation we know as grief.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of disbelief after a loved one died.

Maybe you even continued to look for him or her, even though you witnessed the funeral. O’Connor explains this phenomenon. 

The brain struggles to understand what happened when our loved one dies. The dimensions that we once knew them in—space and time—disappear. 

Yet we remain attached.

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Our brain hasn’t yet caught up with this disparity and still expects our loved one to return.

The brain has to unlearn the predicted associations of place and time. The passage of time is needed to update the mind maps we used to locate our loved one.

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O’Connor’s grief studies include loss of important friendships and romantic breakups. These losses also produce a sense of disbelief and yearning.

Absence of a special person, O’Connor says, sets off emotional alarm bells. Our invisible attachment bonds are stretched beyond what we think we can handle.

This alarm is compounded if the absence occurs abruptly, a.k.a “ghosting”. Since our brain believes and knows the absent person is still “out there”, it searches for explanations and seeks to “fix” whatever led to the departure.

Just as after a death, our brain must learn to imagine a future apart from this absent love. 

I found the The Grieving Brain a fascinating read. O’Connor sheds light on the universal experience of grieving, helping us to feel less alone, less crazy, and better equipped to move forward.

***

She concludes with this comforting thought:

“The physical makeup of our brain–the structure of our neurons–has been changed by them. …and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death…Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us…Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.”

Update: My adapted essay, “Losing My Words”, has been included in the newly published Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving, Loss, and Healing. 101 Stories of Comfort and Moving Forward.

Winter Solstice Reflection: Where were you 2 years ago?

The pandemic has forced us to make peace with uncertainty.

December 13, 2019. 

I’d just returned from a fabulous NYC trip. My daughter and I shopped Fifth Avenue, dined out, enjoyed the holiday displays, visited Rockefeller Center, and happily sat in a crowded Broadway theatre.

We had no idea what was in store for the 2020 New Year. Couldn’t even imagine it. 

No idea that some faraway virus would upend our lives. 

No inkling that her 2020 NYU graduation would be cancelled. 

Never fathomed that the Broadway we’d always enjoyed would shut down in two months. 

And so it goes.

Here we are December 19th, 2021, still exhausted from risk calculations. The Omicron news brings flashbacks to 2020. We may be in a different, even better place, yet for many of us, our bodies remember the trauma and react as if it’s happening all over again. 

The pandemic years have forced us to make peace with uncertainty. As a result, I’m less inclined to put things off, and more inclined to grab an opportunity when it arises. 

So, recently, my daughter and I grabbed tickets to a holiday musical showing in Boston. We were all dressed up and ready to go when we learned that the show was cancelled.

Yet a strange thing happened.

Instead of utter disappointment, we were more relieved to find this out before driving all the way into Boston at night! Thankfully, the venue offered us the chance to rebook. So we grabbed that, too.

A few days later, we sat in the Wang Theatre among the other vaccinated or negative-testing patrons, all masked. Exactly 2 years from the date of our Broadway show. 

I even wore the same dress to commemorate the milestone.

And while it certainly felt different, it still felt wonderful.

***

The shortest, and darkest, day of the Northern Hemisphere approaches. And yet, the winter solstice also means the days are getting slightly longer, though it will take a while to notice.

Tonight there’s the full Cold Moon to marvel. 

And the annual Ursids meteor shower to catch.

This year, though, the bright moon will make it harder to see those spectacular shooting stars.  

Be patient. 

Keep watching.

Don’t miss the show. ~

December 19, 2019. Moon Dance Begins Again.

Could You Save A Life?

Do you know CPR? Could you save a life?

It can happen in a split second.

You’re going about your ordinary day only to be thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

Life and death.

A child. Blue lips. Screaming parents. Sounds you’ve never heard and hope never to hear again.

Your body reacts before your mind. Your hands take over compressing the little girl’s chest. Breathe your essence into her. One, two, three…

You’re pretty sure she’s gone, yet you stay calm amidst the chaos circling the room.

You believe in miracles.

After what feels an interminable wait, the paramedics arrive. You step aside as they take over, whisk the child away. 

The hysteria unfolds outside the house where the October sky is too beautiful for tragedy.

October 202

You recognize the shock in the mother’s face. You know what is happening to her brain and body because you have been there before. So you stay, try to steady her, speak gently, hold her, run through the house to find her shoes, help her go with the ambulance.

You answer the police officer’s questions. You notice his moist eyes. Now you are shaking. He takes you home, thanks you for being there, tells you to take good care of yourself.

But it is not you who needs care. You will be okay.

The child’s parents will remain in the After–a place you have lived in–never ever the same. 

This is what haunts you.

Their little girl doesn’t come home.

***

You reflect, of course. Try to make meaning of what happened before breakfast on a bright ordinary morning. Why you, of all people, were there at that right/wrong moment. You with the anxious brain prone to panic.

Later you will learn that there was nothing the parents, or you, could have done at that point to save the child. There were underlying circumstances. No one was at fault.

Of course there are no guarantees. Minutes matter. Often it is too late.

Still, you take comfort knowing you tried. And that those left to carry on are also comforted by this knowledge. You were with them in their worst moment. 

You think about a few close calls you had when your own children were little, how you did the right thing. But that was a while ago. So you take time to review other life-saving skills. Encourage others to do the same.

Because you never know when you’ll be called upon to help a stranger. Or a neighbor. And if that doesn’t motivate you to learn first-aid skills, then think of your children, grandchildren, or spouse. 

Could you perform CPR?

Could you save someone from choking?

Do you know the signs of a stroke?

Do you know how to use a home fire extinguisher?

It can happen in a split second.

I know. I’ve been there. ~

#Coronaversary. What have you learned one year later?

What have you learned from the pandemic year?

When was your last “normal” day?

What were you doing when the world turned upside down?

For me that was Friday, March 13th 2020.

Like toppling dominoes, one cancellation piled atop another. Our public school went remote. Our synagogue cancelled Sabbath services. Our town library closed. My gym and dance studio closed. An up-coming business trip was cancelled. My private students cancelled their lessons. My daughter came home from college (thinking it would be a few weeks).

Oh, and my son’s engagement party was planned for that weekend. 

I’m glad I didn’t know how long the doom would last. How many lives would be lost.

There is hope now. But our world is different. You are different. Hopefully, you’ve gained some things amidst all the losses. 

***

I learned the primacy of relationships over work and ambition. 

I learned that absence makes the heart grow fonder and stronger.

I learned how much I miss my grandchildren.

I learned that children are better mask-adapters than adults. 

I learned it’s okay to sit in the car and cry.

I learned to surrender to uncertainty.

I learned to expect plans to change. 

I learned how to teach lessons over Zoom. 

I learned we can build bridges with words.

I learned words I wish I didn’t have to utter: lockdown, social-distancing, aerosols, quarantine, asymptomatic, fomites, super-spreader…

I learned that family members can hold vastly different beliefs from me. 

I learned that when things are looking really bad, look toward the heavens. 

I learned just how wise my young adult children have become.

I learned that writing can sustain me.

I learned what I can and cannot live without.

I learned just how lucky I am. ~

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