How to Learn Through Loss

Neuroscience can guide us to grace for grieving.

When we face the loss of a person, an animal, or a possession, our very core can be permanently altered. The impact resonates within our souls, and the memory of loss is etched into our long-term memory forever. However, the experience of loss is deeply personal and unique to each individual.

Recent advancements in neuroscience may unlock the mystery of how our brains navigate grief, shedding light on the diverse ways people experience mourning. With this insight, we can extend more grace to colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers as they traverse grief’s varied terrain. Importantly, this awareness empowers us to grant ourselves permission and compassion in seeking the necessary support and resources to navigate our own grief.

When we can’t ‘get over it’

Why is it that one person seems to move past a loss quickly while another struggles? We might be tempted to judge how individuals process loss, but this can lead to damaging rifts within families and severed friendships. Instead, consider that grief is closely intertwined with the chemicals and neural circuits in our brains.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, describes grief as a form of learning that remains with us indefinitely. When we understand the connection, we gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the mind during times of loss. This understanding can help us release judgment on how two individuals in the same family might mourn the loss of a parent in distinct ways, for example.

Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross describes the grief process using a five-stage model: A person progresses through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. However, other research suggests that grief might follow a non-linear pattern and include feelings of yearning, emotional numbness, and despair.

Attachments across three dimensions

Throughout our lives, we form attachments to people, animals, and possessions, creating countless neural connections and associations in our minds. This network of neural structures is impacted by grief.

Neuroscientists categorize these attachments along three dimensions: space, time, and depth of connections. Your brain holds a map of where the person, animal, or possession lost was physically located in relation to you, the last time you saw or talked to the person or animal or used the possession, and how deeply you felt love for this person, animal, or thing.

The strength of these attachments across these dimensions of space, time, and depth of connection might explain why some losses are felt more deeply than others. For example, if you last spoke to a spouse (depth of connection) the night before they passed in their sleep (time), and they slept next to you (space), the sudden event may lead to what some call complicated grief because the grief disrupts the person’s ability to function normally.

When we combine these emotional attachments with the unique neurotransmitters present in our brains before grief strikes, such as dopamine and cortisol, our responses to grief can vary significantly if stress levels are also in the mix. This dynamic might explain why a caregiver, aware of their loved one’s impending death, can still struggle to process grief. The stress of caregiving may have elevated cortisol levels that were present at the time of the loved one’s passing, impacting the individual’s ability to navigate their thoughts and emotions during the grieving process.

When we see someone in the throes of grief, we cannot know their mindset at the time of loss. We should avoid judging another’s pace of grieving. Approaching grief from a learning perspective helps us recognize the roles of the brain and body in the process. Indeed, doctors and psychologists often recommend various therapies to help process loss within the context of space and time. These therapies are often critical for those mourning to integrate their loss into their new selves.

So, the next time you question how someone seemingly “got over” grief so fast, or perhaps not fast enough, remember that the path to healing is intricately tied to our brains.

Article originally published on May 9, 2024 on Inc.com.

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