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