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Rewiring the Brain in Grief

Grieving is learning as our brains adjust to a profound change.

Key points

  • In grief, our brains must rewire to function in a world minus our loved one.
  • When in grief, what happens to neurons that developed specifically to respond to the presence of the loved one?
  • By avoiding painful feelings, you do not give your brain the opportunity to learn to manage them.
 David Matos/Unsplash
Source: David Matos/Unsplash

In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-author (with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu) and narrator Douglas Carlton Abrams tells a story about his father, who suffered a brain injury. It was touch and go for a while, but when he came around, his other son said to him, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

And the father responded. “It’s OK. It’s part of my curriculum.”

It’s part of my curriculum.

A useful metaphor for life, and for grief.

“Thinking of grieving as a form of learning makes [grief] a little more familiar and helps us to understand,” said psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn From Love and Loss.

Before she started studying grief, O’Connor had commonplace beliefs about it. “I had a very traditional view that this is an event that happens to us and so we have to react to that stress and recover.”

But she soon came to understand grief was not just the addition of stress; more importantly, it was a profound subtraction. “It had not really occurred to me that the brain had to adjust to the loss of this person that provides all this comfort and reward, and we have to figure out how to live in the world with that absence.”

Learning to live with the absence is the most primal lesson in the Grief 101 curriculum.

Grief Kindergarten Is Chaos

Very early grief is a chaotic free-for-all, internally. Our brains spin like a busted hard drive trying to locate the person we have lost. They run through scenario after scenario, all ending with the loved one surviving. They struggle to make sense of an unimaginable future. And all this while also negotiating the necessities of living: waking up, taking a shower, feeding ourselves. And we must do more complex tasks—working, parenting, and engaging with others.

Early on in grief, this chaos is fine. Not fun, but not surprising. Early grief is an out-of-control kindergarten, with difficult new thoughts and emotions running amok in our brains. Is it any wonder grief is also physically exhausting? “It’s like you’re trying to learn calculus while also running a marathon,” O’Connor said—hence, the brain fog many of us complain about.

Neural Bereavement

Our brains are expending energy just looking for our lost loved ones. Researchers have identified what they call “here, now, close” neurons that evolved to help us keep track of the loved ones on whom we depend. When our loved one’s corporeal presence suddenly vanishes (and it feels abrupt, even when expected), our brains don’t stop looking right away. They must learn over time that the person is no longer here, now, close.

And, studying voles, researchers spotted what they call “partner approach neurons” in the amygdala. These are “neurons that are specifically firing as you approach your partner,” says O’Connor. “As the bonds get stronger there are more of these neurons.” What happens to those neurons when that loved one is gone? We don’t yet know. This field of research is fairly new, and longitudinal studies have not been completed.

Mindfulness and Grief

Our brains also must learn to handle intense emotions, including sadness and what I think of as its accompanying gremlins: guilt, rumination, and regret. While sadness is inevitable and healthy, the gremlins obstruct healing. One hypothesis posits that rumination is a way of trying to avoid the gut-wrenching sadness of pure grief, either by distracting ourselves with guilt and regret or living in a la-la-land of better outcomes.

“All those stories we’re telling ourselves, those virtual realities we’re making up, all those stories end in ‘and then my loved one lived,’” said O’Connor. “But of course, that’s not the reality. As deeply painful as it is to face that, it is also the world in which you live now. Spending a lot of time in this virtual world doesn’t help us connect with people around us, doesn’t help us figure out what is meant for us to do today.”

Today, here, now, is where some peace can be found: Yes, he is gone, but the sky is blue, and there’s a cardinal on the bird bath, and my coffee is hot. Would I rather he were here enjoying the morning with me? Of course. But he’s not, and wishing brings only pain. This is a mindfulness practice, of noticing when your mind wanders towards dark passages and pulling it back to the present moment.

Neural Rewiring

Neurons that fire together wire together, so my strategy for the grief gremlins has been banishing them—again and again. I don’t want my brain wired to take me to dark places every time I think about Tom. When my mind starts going down a dark path, I’ll say, often aloud, “It’s too late.” Sometimes I block the thoughts with a visualization of something that represents Tom for me, or, better, a loving memory of him, to strengthen that neural connection.

Maybe that sounds kind of clinical. Trust me: There was lots of abject sobbing as well. But grief waves are something else we learn to manage. In the first months after Tom died, I kept tears at bay, fearing that, once loosed, they would never stop. Eventually, the dam broke, but I learned that, given space, even the most primal wails eventually petered out. They came on and moved through me. So when I felt the urge to cry, I cried until the crying stopped, which it always did, until next time, when I would let it move through me again. I still use this skill because the tears aren’t over yet and might never be. I’ve gotten good at crying discreetly in supermarkets and other public places. (Sunglasses, of course.)

No Skipping This Class

It’s important to note that keeping the true pain of grief at bay with drugs or alcohol or work or rumination or whatever you use for escape is not the same as managing it. Sure, taking breaks from the pain is perfectly fine. I took a weekslong road trip early on, running away from the pain for as long as I could before returning home to let the weeping begin.

But long-term avoidance of the pain doesn’t teach your brain how to process it. Staying home alone doesn't help your brain learn how to function in the world without your person. And avoiding places, people, or activities that remind you of the person “takes us out of our day-to-day life,” says O’Connor. “It prevents us from having the deep and often meaningful interactions that we can have.” She recommends reaching out for support to face the places or activities you fear.

Grief 101 is not an easy A; it’s a long and difficult slog, and the lessons come in fits and starts. When our loved one died, the map our brain worked from—of both our inner and outer worlds—was profoundly altered. For a while, neurons fire every which way, trying to make sense of things. Eventually—and we can help—they make new connections as they learn their way around this new terrain.

“Of course, learning takes a long time, of course, learning is frustrating, of course, you can’t learn everything on the first day,” says O’Connor. “Learning is new neural connections, and your brain is there to support you to do that learning.”

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