How the Brain Grieves

Grief Is Adaptation to Change

I’m surrounded by reminders. Reminders of people I love who are no longer here. The bin of candles under the bed, the smiling photo on the refrigerator, the pair of reading glasses on the bookshelf.

They each represent loss.

Loss is change. Our brains don’t like change.

Grief is our adaption to that change.

Grief Versus Grieving

If you are in a season of grief or just want to better understand grief, this new book by Mary-Frances O’Connor, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, may be as fascinating to you as it is to me.

Instead of feeling bad about ourselves for how slowly we process grief, or for how differently we grieve compared to someone else, this book reminds us that it’s not all up to us. Blame it on the brain.

Dr. O’Connor (neuroscientist and psychologist) has compiled decades of research into how our brains process grief.

She makes a distinction between grief (the intense emotion that crashes over you and recurs over and over) and grieving (the process, not the moment of grief).

She writes,

“Grief never ends, and it is a natural response to loss. You will experience pangs of grief over this specific person forever. . . .

But, whereas you will feel the universally human emotion of grief forever, your grieving, your adaptation, changes the experience over time.

The first one hundred times you have a wave of grief, you may think, I will never get through this, I cannot bear this. The one hundred and first time, you may think, I hate this, I don’t want this—but it is familiar, and I know I will get through this moment. Even if the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes.”

Update the Maps

Grieving is the brain at work.

Regardless of the source of grief (it’s not just about death), our brain has to update the map in our head to account for the absence of the missing people or things.

And updating the map takes time.

“Our brain trusts and makes predictions based on our lived experience. When you wake up one morning and your loved one is not in the bed next to you, the idea that she has died is simply not true in terms of probability.

For our brain, this is not true on day one, or day two, or for many days after her death. We need enough new lived experiences for our brain to develop new predictions, and that takes time.”

Experiences of Change

But in addition to time, rewiring our brain also requires experiences. We have to stop sending texts to our loved one who is gone. We have to adjust to not watching for their car. We have to stop reaching for them in the bed beside us.

“Your brain has to catch up. It is still running its regular programming of sending out notifications. You are not crazy; you are just in the middle of a learning curve.”

Day after day, the brain learns that the person, the situation, the object, is now gone. And it adjusts a little more.

Just as grieving isn’t quick, it also isn’t cheap.

“Grief is the cost of loving someone.”

To help someone grieving, Dr. O’Connor suggests that “cheering them up” is not the goal. Being with them is.

Even though each person’s grief is unique, the common experience of grief can bring us together.

“Once you have experienced deep grieving, you walk through a doorway to a whole community of people that you would otherwise never have understood and empathized with. You probably would not choose this door, if the choice were yours. And yet, here you are on the other side, with knowledge about yourself and a marvelous brain that you can utilize to build and navigate a new world.”

Just as love will always be with us (thankfully!), so will grief. Books like The Grieving Brain help us learn healthier ways of thinking about and processing our grief.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

My thanks to HarperOne + NetGalley
for the review copy of this book

11 thoughts on “How the Brain Grieves

  1. Lynn

    Love this! I often say “train the brain” and now can also say “blame the brain!” It is fascinating how we are wired, and so important to give ourselves time and grace through all transitions as our brain works to adjusts.

  2. Lynn Severance

    This sounds like a most helpful book for any transition in life as we leave behind what was once familiar to move toward what is new. I still feel not quite settled into a new living situation – faith-focused senior community – although everything about it is wonderful. New people, a duplex apt. on the ground with a garden, activities and groups meant to help us thrive. Yet I left a space where I had lived for 46 years (age 31-77) and such prime years of life and people I loved (now family members gone ahead). It helps to know where the ‘uneasiness’ comes from. I am reminded to Joyce Rupp’s book, “Praying Our Goodbyes” which actually start at birth! It does not change for those of us approaching the last seasons in our lives – and I know I want every moment to count because every moment does count.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      How difficult to leave a place of 46 years, Lynn! Even if you’re going to a new good place, it’s still hard to leave behind the old, and grieving is definitely in order for that. I admire your courage to start over elsewhere. And your faith! I know you take that with you everywhere you go. “Praying Our Goodbyes” sounds like a valuable resources…I’ll look into it for myself.

  3. Jeanne Takenaka

    Lisa, this post is fascinating. Having lost loved ones in the last year, this helps me to better understand grief and grieving. Especially for my SIL who lost her husband just over a year ago. Thanks for the book suggestion. I’m adding it to my TBR list.

  4. Maria Khan

    Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog

  5. Nancy Ruegg

    Thank you for introducing us to Mary-Francis’ O’Connor’s book, Lisa. I agree it sounds intriguing and oh-so-helpful. It makes perfect sense that we have to be patient while our brains catch up to a new reality. New, neuron pathways must be forged and that takes time. I’m adding this book to my TBR list also!

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