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What We Get Wrong About Grieving

More than an action, this pre-installed setting is on-board to help us heal.

Key points

  • Advances in neuroimaging are helping people better understand psychological reactions and responses to grief.
  • Just as someone is changed by the arrival of a loved one into their life, they are altered by their departure.
  • Grieving isn’t the problem: It is a solution, hardwired to help individuals navigate the pain of loss. 

Recently, I was asked, “How long does it typically take to get through grief?”

If you’re well-acquainted with grief, you may already know that this is a trick question.

It’s normal to want to exit out of the painful experience you’re feeling, so it’s a reasonable question to ask. In the early days of my grief, I asked it, too.

However, I was not comforted by the answer: “It takes as long as it takes.”

Ugh. What does that even mean? What do I need to do to hurry things along? Are we talking months or years?

I practically begged for a timeframe, which, for me, felt like it would have been better than the vague, timeless alternative. I asked clinicians, read books, and watched TED talks, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to give me an estimate for my grief relief.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about grief. I now understand that grieving isn’t a time-bound experience and that it’s different for everyone. I also recognize that “getting through” grief isn’t the same as “getting through” other troublesome situations. At least not in the way I was thinking.

Consider, for example, unwanted experiences like travel delays or a never-ending auto repair. Both are inconvenient, frustrating, and disruptive, but both tend to include time estimates. Knowing how long we’ll be driving a loaner vehicle helps us to endure the discomfort because, with that data, we can conceptualize time and construct a plan to help us withstand the wait.

Our brains like that.

But building a plan for our grief requires more than enduring an unplanned night in the airport or three weeks in a rental car.

That’s because grief is more than something we feel when we experience the death of a beloved relationship or the death of a loved one. The absence of our loved ones changes us.

Navigating grief

Research shows that when we experience an emotional connection and form an attached bond, whether in a romantic or familial relationship, our brains are physically altered. New experiences activate neurons and create new neuropathways which, over time, inform our sense of self, our world, and our place in the world—and this isn’t exclusive to humans!

Source: DSD/Pexels
Source: DSD/Pexels

Studies examining animals who mate for life have found similar changes, among them how proteins within the brain present differently before and after the bond occurs. So, if forming that bond with our loved ones means that they—and our relationship—are essentially new coordinates mapped into our brains, it makes sense why we struggle to integrate the new reality of their absence.

Reimagining our lives can elicit a myriad of emotions, among them fear. As C.S. Lewis so beautifully stated, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.” It’s no wonder we begin looking for something, anything, to help us feel better.

But it seems that our brains are already equipped to help us reroute by providing us with a normal and natural response to our loss. We call it grieving.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, a neuroscientist and psychologist, studies the impact of grief and loss. In her book, The Grieving Brain, O’Connor offers a distinction between “grief” and “grieving” that, though subtle, provided me with a helpful, new lens.

“Grief,” she says, “is the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming and unable to be ignored. Grief is a moment that happens over and over… Grieving is the word I use to refer to the process, not the moment of grief. Grieving has a trajectory... your grieving, your adaptation, changes the experience over time…(it) is the change from having your attachment needs fulfilled by your loved one, to filling them in other ways.”

This distinction shifted my perspective. Now I see it not as a problem that begs an estimated ending, but rather as a supportive tool to help my brain integrate my new reality. In this sense, “grieving” is like an adaptive smart technology already onboard. But just as we have the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology found built into most modern-day vehicles, we also have to activate our Grieving Positioning System. We do so by engaging with our grief and allowing experiences without our loved ones.

Grieving helps us to reroute.
Source: StudioThreeDots/iStock

The “Grieving Positioning System”

Your “Grieving Positioning System” works much the same way as your vehicle’s. In this scenario, you are your vehicle, your loved one is an address that you plug into your GPS, and grieving is the GPS or the tool that helps you navigate.

The good news is that once that address is uploaded (bonded) into your system, it’s always there, and your brain can access those coordinates whenever needed. The tough part is, of course, that this rerouting isn’t to their physical presence. But if we want to access their essence and tap into that love, we can—we just have to be willing to allow it. Because this is painful, sometimes unbearably so, adopting a numbing agent, denying the experience, or avoiding it altogether becomes the maladaptive coping mechanism of choice. Yet it is within the discomfort of not knowing “how long” we’ll be traveling this undesirable, painful path and choosing it anyway that we grieve. And as we do, the grieving brain begins to rewire and reroute us healthily.

It does this by using what’s already onboard, including the data stored about our loved one and our physical time together. This information is still accessible and a primary source of what helps us to reroute in the wake of our loss.

Our brains hold a cache of data that can deliver us to those ever-embedded coordinates and the trove of memories that can provide comfort and relief—even if only briefly.

Grieving can be painful, and integrating an important loss isn’t something that happens in an instant. Just like the many moments of love that formed your bond, adjusting to the absence of your loved one takes time. But our brains are a mighty tool—one that is always learning, able to create new pathways and help us to reroute.

It isn’t easy, but it’s a trip worth taking.


O'Connor, Mary-Frances. The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. HarperOne, 2021.

Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed 1898-1963. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989

Sarazin, Stephanie. Soulbroken, A Guidebook for Your Journey Through Ambiguous Grief. GCP/Balance, 2022.…

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