How The Brain Rewires Itself After Losing A Loved One

Neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor explores what happens in the brain when you experience grief and why it’s a struggle to accept loss.

The following is an excerpt from The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Frances O’Connor.

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The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss


Neuroscience is not necessarily the discipline that springs to mind when thinking of grief, and certainly, when my quest began, that was even less the case. Through my years of study and research, I eventually realized the brain has a problem to solve when a loved one has died. This is not a trivial problem. Losing our one-and-only overwhelms us, because we need our loved ones as much as we need food and water.

Fortunately, the brain is good at solving problems. In fact, the brain exists for precisely this function. After decades of research, I realized that the brain devotes lots of effort to mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so that we can find them when we need them. And the brain often prefers habits and predictions over new information. But it struggles to learn new information that cannot be ignored, like the absence of our loved one. Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together with our loved one and transforming our relationship with this person who has died. Grieving, or learning to live a meaningful life without our loved one, is ultimately a type of learning. Because learning is something we do our whole lives, seeing grieving as a type of learning may make it feel more familiar and understandable and give us the patience to allow this remarkable process to unfold.

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How Grief Rewires The Brain

When I talk to students or clinicians or even people sitting next to me on a plane, I find they have burning questions about grief. They ask: Is grief the same as depression? When people do not show their grief, is it because they are in denial? Is losing a child worse than losing a spouse? Then, very often, they ask me this type of question: I know someone whose mom/brother/best friend/husband died, and after six weeks/four months/eighteen months/ten years, they still feel grief. Is this normal?

After many years, it dawned on me that the assumptions behind people’s questions demonstrate that grief researchers have not been very successful at broadcasting what they have learned. That is what motivated me to write this book. I am steeped in what psychologist and grief researcher George Bonanno termed the new science of bereavement. The type of grief that I focus on in this book applies to those who have lost a spouse, a child, a best friend, or anyone with whom they are close. I also explore other losses, such as the loss of a job, or the pain we feel when a celebrity whom we admire greatly and have never met dies. I offer thoughts for those of us who are adjacent to someone who is grieving, to help us understand what is happening for them. This is not a book of practical advice, and yet many who have read it tell me they learned things they can apply to their own unique experience of loss.

The brain has always fascinated humanity, but new methods allow us to look inside that black box, and what we can see tantalizes us with possible answers to ancient questions. Having said that, I do not believe that a neuroscientific perspective on grief is any better than a sociological, a religious, or an anthropological one. I say that genuinely, despite devoting an entire career to the neurobiological lens. I believe our understanding of grief through a neurobiological lens can enhance our understanding, create a more holistic view of grief, and help us engage in new ways with the anguish and terror of what grief is like. Neuroscience is part of the conversation of our times. By understanding the myriad aspects of grief, by focusing in greater detail on how brain circuits, neurotransmitters, behaviors, and emotions are engaged during bereavement, we have an opportunity to empathize in a new way with those who are currently suffering. We can allow ourselves to feel grief, allow others to feel grief, and understand the experience of grieving—all with greater compassion and hope.

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You may have noticed that I use the terms grief and grieving. Although you hear them used interchangeably, I make an important distinction between them. On the one hand, there is grief—the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored. Grief is a moment that recurs over and over. However, these moments are distinct from what I call grieving, the word I use to refer to the process, not the moment, of grief. Grieving has a trajectory. Obviously, grief and grieving are related, which is why the two terms have been used interchangeably when describing our experience of loss. But there are key differences. You see, grief never ends, and it is a natural response to loss. You will experience pangs of grief over this specific person forever. You will have discrete moments that overwhelm you, even years after the death when you have restored your life to a meaningful, fulfilling experience. But, whereas you will feel the universally human emotion of grief forever, your grieving, your adaptation, changes the experience over time. The first one hundred times you have a wave of grief, you may think, I will never get through this, I cannot bear this. The one hundred and first time, you may think, I hate this, I don’t want this—but it is familiar, and I know I will get through this moment. Even if the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes. Feeling grief years after your loss may make you doubt whether you have really adapted. If you think of the emotion and the process of adaptation as two different things, however, then it isn’t a problem that you experience grief even when you have been grieving for a long time.

You can think about our journey together through this book as a series of mysteries that we are solving, with part I organized around grief and part II organized around grieving. Each chapter tackles a particular question. Chapter 1 asks, Why is it so hard to understand that the person has died and is gone forever? Cognitive neuroscience helps me to address this question. Chapter 2 asks, Why does grief cause so many emotions—why do we feel such strong sadness, anger, blame, guilt, and yearning? Here I bring in the theory of attachment, including our neural attachment system. Chapter 3 builds on the answers in the first two chapters with a follow-up question: Why does it take so long to understand that our loved one is gone forever? I explain the multiple forms of knowledge that our brain holds simultaneously to think through this puzzle. By chapter 4, we have enough background to dig into a primary question: What happens in the brain during grief? However, to understand the answer to this question we also consider: How has our understanding of grief changed over the history of bereavement science? Chapter 5 looks with more nuance at why some people adapt better than others when they lose a loved one, and asks, What are the complications in complicated grief? Chapter 6 reflects on why it hurts so much when we lose this specific beloved person. This is a chapter about how love works, and how our brain enables the bonding that happens in relationships. Chapter 7 addresses what we can do when we are overwhelmed with grief. I rely on clinical psychology to delve into answers to this question.

In part II we turn to the topic of grieving, and how we might go about restoring a meaningful life. Chapter 8 asks, Why do we ruminate so much after we lose a loved one? Changing what we spend our time thinking about can change our neural connections and increase our chances of learning to live a meaningful life. Turning from focusing on the past, however, leads us to the question in chapter 9, Why would we engage in our life in the present moment, if it is full of grief? The response includes the idea that only in the present moment can we also experience joy and common humanity, and express love to our living loved ones. From the past and present, in chapter 10 we turn to the future and ask, How can our grief ever change, if the person will never return? Our brain is remarkable, enabling us to imagine an infinite number of future possibilities, if we harness this ability. Chapter 11 closes with what cognitive psychology can contribute to our understanding of grieving as a form of learning. Adopting the mindset that grieving is a form of learning, and that we are all always learning, may make the winding path of grieving more familiar and hopeful.

Think of this book as having three characters. The most important character is your brain, marvelous in its ability and enigmatic in its process. It’s the part of you that hears and sees what happens when your loved one dies and that wonders what to do next. Your brain is central to the story, built from centuries of evolution and hundreds of thousands of hours of your own personal experience with love and loss. The second character is bereavement science, a young field full of charismatic scientists and clinicians, as well as the false starts and exciting discoveries of any scientific endeavor. The third and final character is me, a griever and a scientist, because I want you to trust me as your guide. My own experiences of loss are not so unusual, but through my life’s work, I hope you may see through a new lens how your brain enables you to carry your loved one with you through the rest of your life.

Excerpted from The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Frances O’Connor and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

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About Mary-Frances O’Connor

Mary-Frances O’Connor is a neuroscientist and author of The Grieving Brain. She’s based in Tucson, Arizona.

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