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Why Grief-Related Experiences Can Seem Illogical

We may be unable to make sense of the grief we feel.

Key points

  • The logic of grief remains mysterious because it is as unique as the life stories from which it emerges.
  • In times of grief, cognitive and emotional processes that usually ensure stability may function inadequately.
  • Remembering is what makes us grieve. Without positive memories and imagery to arouse it, grief is absent.

We may experience grief in response to the death of a loved one, the end of a romantic relationship, the loss of an intact family because of divorce, the termination of a pregnancy, a pet’s disappearance, or a parent’s descent into dementia. Grief may be activated in many different and unusual circumstances.

In any case, grief's logic remains mysterious, partly because it is as unique as the life stories from which it emerges. For the past 100 years, serious thinkers have attempted to make sense of grief, applying various theoretical frameworks that might give it a recognizable face. But it may be that only in the context of a deeply personal history that grief makes sense.

According to British philosopher Rupert Read (2018), the logic of grief is peculiar and hard to understand, even for its sufferer. As the travel companion of emotion, cognition uses the logic of thought to inform what we feel. We use our cognitive abilities whenever we consciously think, remember, reason, or know. Cognition involves many aspects of mental functioning, including perception, attention, memory, imagery, language, reasoning, and decision-making. Information acquired from living in the world and interacting with the environment becomes represented within our minds, enabling our cognitive processes to operate on these representations (McBride & Cutting, 2016). In other words, our cognitive abilities draw upon what we have learned in the past when we encounter similar situations in the present. Cognition means much more than thinking. Cognition transforms the general data of emotion, including signals and sensations from the body, into specifics that are based on thought processes. Therefore, we instantaneously apply to present experiences what we have learned or have come to understand from similar past experiences, and we tuck away in our memory how we have made sense of emotion so that we may summon this knowledge for the future when we experience loss or pain anew.

Yet there is no template for grief since each and every loss is distinctive based on memories or fantasies of who or what was lost and our relationship with that person or thing: We may find it impossible to explain how a parent’s gradual disappearance into dementia affects us, or be unable to reveal that we may still hold fantasies about the potential future child that was aborted, or be incapable of justifying our longing for a lost relationship that had been impossible from the beginning.

Remembering Is What Makes Us Grieve

Ordinarily, remembering helps protect our sense of self when we must cope with adverse circumstances that activate intense emotion or threaten to destabilize our self-concept (Pasupathi, 2003; Robinson, 1986; Ross & Wilson, 2003). Strangely, in moments of grief, cognitive and emotional processes that usually ensure stability may seem to function inadequately. In the early weeks or months of bereavement, mental disorganization may appear as distractibility, confusion, forgetfulness, and lack of clarity and coherence (Shuchter & Zisook, 1993). The distress or anguish of grief can disrupt our ability to think. Some highly emotional events and stressful influences may interfere with our cognitive fluency and our memory accuracy (McNally, 2003; Peace & Porter, 2004). For example, severe stress in response to loss can affect memory by altering our attention and interfering with what becomes encoded in memory and is available for later retrieval (Laney, 2013). The thoughts accompanying our emotional responses to loss may result in intrusive imagery, ruminations, or concentration difficulties that do not seem to make sense. Thus, when we lose someone or something we love, we may be unable to use thought to make sense of what we feel. On the other hand, we may use thought to attempt to find meaning in a loss deliberately, meaning that may potentially mute the painful emotion and changes within us.

Remembering is what makes us grieve. Without positive emotional memories and imagery to arouse it, grief is absent. A mere gist of a memory, activated by an image, a smell, or a song, can make us aware of feelings and sensations associated with someone or something lost, even without our conscious awareness of why we are experiencing those feelings or sensations at a given moment.

Intrusive thoughts and pervasive yearning for someone who is no longer present, or not present as we knew them to be, are often correlated with a griever’s inclination to focus on reminders that exacerbate bittersweet memories of shared events, and thus, on the unattainable goal of reunion. Intrusive memories involve autobiographical memory and what cognitive psychologists call involuntary memory (Brewin et al., 2010). Involuntary memory influences the recall of specific episodes that affect our mood and trigger bodily reactions; therefore, the images associated with intrusive memories tend to be vivid, persistent, hard to control, and accompanied by intense emotional responses (Brewin et al., 2010). Intrusive images are more likely to emerge when our attention is not actively engaged.

Our cognitive ability to create pictures in our mind can help soothe our feelings around loss but also activate distress. “We live on images,” wrote Robert Lifton (1979, p. 3), the distinguished psychiatrist and author who described the elusive psychological relationship between death and the flow of life. Imagery is a cognitive process that enables humans to construct visual, sensory, or imaginative scenes that otherwise reside in memory (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Images can possess sensory qualities related to vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and movement (Hackmann, 1998; Kosslyn, 1994). Aside from their presence in fantasies during our waking life, they also occur in our dreams. Through imagery, we can connect possibilities that we hope to realize or duplicate (Tomkins, 2008). In this way, we can create images that reunite us with someone we have lost.

Continuing Bonds

Perhaps in our attempts to make sense of grief, we have ignored the processes that happen organically in human memory. For instance, the process of folding new information into memory involves reinterpreting a new experience so that it fits with preexisting information. One way to resolve the dissonance between memories of someone who was once with us and the reality of their absence in the present is to create a continuing bond.

Thought helps us find ways to continue our bonds with people we love and have forever lost. We may focus on a sign or signal of a loved one’s presence, such as the blooming of an orchid on the anniversary of a death or a hummingbird fluttering at the window. Some people privately communicate with departed loved ones through fantasies, prayers, rituals, holy objects, or conversations.

Particular beliefs related to our culture, religion, and the environment in which we live affect the thoughts we assign to situations; therefore, our cognitive perception of a situation may determine how we interpret and respond emotionally to it (J. S. Beck, 2011). For example, if we believe people who have died are somehow looking after us, we may interpret a disappointment as something that is ultimately in our best interest based on “their” assessment of the situation.

We can use our cognitive and perceptual processes to reinterpret a memory of a situation or an event, which may enable us to feel differently about it emotionally (J. S. Beck, 2011), yet vague sensory memories of the people we lost remain, much like a faint scar on new skin can remind us of an old painful wound. Perhaps deliberate attempts to find meaning in loss and make sense of it may represent a cognitive bias that neglects how the emotional meanings of loss influence how we think and feel and how they change inside us. Thus, alongside any attempt to make meaning from our loss, in particular the notion that we create a meaning that honors those we have lost, it is essential to consider how we derive meaning from life after loss. After a significant loss, we naturally may be prone to amplify the importance of the person we have lost, yet the meaning of our lives is not determined by any one person, and it may even be unfair to burden anyone with that responsibility. Thus, the challenge for all of us is not so much to find meaning in our loss but to discover or rediscover meaning in our lives without them.

National Grief Awareness Day

On August 30th, National Grief Awareness Day recognizes that many circumstances may activate grief, acknowledging the time it takes to heal from loss when dramatic changes occur, that grieving doesn’t have a prescribed course, and is a reminder that closure comes in many forms. Despite this recognition, grief is often silently held. Why people are inclined to keep their grief to themselves is a subject for a subsequent post.

This post has been excerpted in part from my book, Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.


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