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How the Brain Rewires as We Grieve

Understanding neuroscience to help manage the pain of loss.

Key points

  • When your partner dies or leaves you, your brain struggles to absorb or understand their absence, as your bond had been encoded as everlasting.
  • Your brain requires lived experience and repetition to learn, rewire, update predictions, and make sense of your partner’s absence.
  • This lengthy and intensive redrawing process explains many of the bewildering, frustrating, and worrisome aspects of grief and mourning.

In recent decades, neuroscience has revealed fascinating information about our relationships and what happens in our brains when we grieve for a loved one who is dead or gone. Particularly if this loss is devastating and “changes everything,” such as when a devoted spouse dies or a beloved partner unilaterally ends a relationship, our grieving brain has an enormous rewiring job to do.

How the Brain Encodes Our Bonds to Loved Ones

The brain is hardwired to form attachments. It keeps track of our most important relationships along three dimensions: space, time, and depth of the connection. When we are separated, our brain keeps our bond intact by predicting when, where, and whether a reunion is likely to happen. These dimensions are also referred to as here, now, and close, referring to our ability, learned during infancy, to soothe ourselves when separated by calling up a mental representation of our loved one as being here, now, and close.

Our most important bonds are also permanently and deeply encoded in the brain, which develops the implicit knowledge that certain people are special to us and will always be with us. This encoding happens during intimate, intense, loving moments.

Of course, we consciously understand that death and unforeseen events can tear us apart, but as far as the non-conscious brain is concerned, whenever we are separated—for a minute, a few hours, a week, or more—it “knows” we will be reunited. Without this implicit knowledge, life would be unbearable, as we’d be thrown into panic, grief, and seeking every time we were apart. Instead, with this implicit knowledge that our loved one is “everlasting,” we rest assured.

The Brain’s Neural Maps

To keep track of our relationships, our brains create neural maps. The neural map for a marriage or long-term partnership contains detailed information about the beloved, the relationship, and life together. Our brains acquire this information through lived experience.

Especially if you and your partner have been closely connected for a long time, your brain has acquired a lot of lived experience and maintains a comprehensive neural map, which it uses to predict and make sense of what’s going on in each moment.

For example, in the morning your brain hears someone breathing, feels a body, or sees a lump in the bed, and instantly knows it’s your partner lying next to you. Your brain knows when your partner will return home each day. Your brain predicts they’ll complain about hot weather, fix the car and the plumbing, buy groceries on Tuesday after pickleball, hike with you on weekends, celebrate your birthday, annoy you with bad puns, leave dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, and give you a cute card on Valentine’s Day.

Thanks to this neural map, your brain requires very little computing power to navigate life with this person. Instead of each moment being a shock or unexpected surprise, with loads of new negotiations and decisions to make every day, life flows more easily with a rich, filled-in neural map of predictable routines, customary habits, realistic expectations, recognizable presence, and familiar feel.

When your partner dies or ends your relationship, your grieving brain must learn to make sense of their absence and redraw its neural map to reflect this new reality. Particularly if you expected and counted on spending many more years together, this learning process is a huge and complicated undertaking.

Making Sense of It

In trying to make sense of the absence, your brain struggles to reconcile two opposing pieces of knowledge—the conscious knowledge that they are gone, and the powerful, implicit knowledge that they are everlasting. This struggle explains some of the more bewildering and crazy-making aspects of grieving. For example:

  • You can’t seem to absorb the news that they are gone. How can they be gone? They are everlasting!
  • You may feel, see, or hear your loved one, because your brain is still holding onto here, now, and close, and interprets common sensations, sights, and sounds as signs of their presence.
  • You may feel disorientated and wonder if you’ll wake up from this bad dream, because surely, they are everlasting and you will be reunited.

Each time you confront these two opposing pieces of knowledge, it triggers painful grief and you yearn deeply.

Your Continuing Bond

To settle the dispute between gone and everlasting, many cultures support the bereaved in finding ways to express their continuing bond. You can do this by maintaining a connection in ways you find meaningful and comforting. For example, you could continue to enjoy the interests you shared, spend quality time with the children, write about your life together, channel their strengths or wisdom, or feel their presence when you hear certain music or spot a certain wild creature.

If your partner abandoned you, maintaining a connection is more fraught but still a normal part of the grieving process. As your brain laboriously redraws the neural map of this relationship and you ease into reinventing your life, you’ll gradually and naturally ease away from resisting the reality of their departure and wishing for their return.

Redrawing the Neural Map

For many months, even though you know your relationship has changed, your brain’s neural map may lag behind. Your brain favors the implicit knowledge that the partner or loved one is everlasting and won’t update the map just because they haven't been around for a day, or even several months. It requires ample time and a ton of lived experience to absorb the absence, update the predictions, and complete this enormous redraw.

In the meantime, the still-outdated areas of your neural map make you think, feel, and act as if your loved one is here, now, and close. Your grief is triggered every time an outdated prediction fails. You ruminate endlessly on what happened and what will become of you. You feel distracted and exhausted.

This monumental rewiring job explains a lot of what you’re experiencing as you mourn. You’re not crazy; your brain is rewiring itself, and you need time to feel whole again, reinvent your life, and plan a different future without your beloved. Knowing this can grant you more patience and self-compassion.

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Mary-Frances O'Connor. The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. New York: Harper Collins, 2022.

Megan Devine. It's Okay that You're Not Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2017.

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