Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing
“Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve… to live in the world with the absence of someone… ingrained in your understanding of the world… For the brain, [they are] simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time.”
By Maria Popova
“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief,” Emily Dickinson wrote as she calibrated love and loss. But she did not mean that it is good to ruminate and wallow — Dickinson so deftly played with the surface of meaning, so delighted in startling us into a flinch or furrow before plunging us into the deeper truths she fathomed. She meant, I think, that a love lost is grieved forever, whatever the nature of the loss — this she knew, and turned the ongoingness of it into a lifetime of art — but by looking back, we are reminded over and over that the sharp edge of grief does smooth over time, that today’s blunt ache is worlds apart from the first stabs, until grief becomes, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his stirring letter of consolation to a bereaved young woman, “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”
And besides, what does it mean to lose a love anyway? We never lose people, not really. I don’t mean this in some mystical sense — let there be no confusion about what actually happens when we die. I don’t even mean it in the poetic sense. I am speaking strictly from the point of view of the mind emerging from the dazzling materiality of the brain — that majestic cathedral of cortex and synapse shaping every thought we have and every feeling we tremble with.
I am speaking of the paradox inside the brain:
On the one hand, we lose people all the time — to death, to distance, to differences; from the brain’s point of view, these varieties of loss differ not by kind but only by degree, triggering the same neural circuitry, producing sorrow along a spectrum of intensity shaped by the level of closeness and the finality of the loss.
On the other hand, no person we have loved is ever fully gone. When they die or vanish, they are physically no longer present, but their personhood permeates our synapses with memories and habits of mind, saturates an all-pervading atmosphere of feeling we don’t just carry with us all the time but live and breathe inside. Or the opposite happens, which is its own devastation — the physical body remains present, but the person we have known and loved, that safehouse of shared memories and trust, is gone — lost to mental illness, to addiction, to neurodegenerative disease.
In both cases, the brain is tasked with the slow, painful work of reconstituting its map of the world, so that the world makes sense again without the beloved person in it. Mapping, in fact, is not a mere metaphor but what is actually going on in the brain, since our orientation in spacetime and our autonoeic consciousness — the capacity for mental self-representation — share a cortical region.
Where the missed and missing person goes on the map, how the remapping actually unfolds, and what it takes to redraw the map in such a way that the world feels whole again are the questions coursing through The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (public library) by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor — a pioneer in fMRI research since the technology first became available, who has devoted a quarter century to studying the particular neurophysiology of grief. She writes:
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.
Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, and grieving necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world. This means that for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time. You are navigating your life despite the fact that they have been stolen from you, a premise that makes no sense, and that is both confusing and upsetting.
Making an important distinction between grief (“the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored”) and grieving (an ongoing process punctuated by recurring moments of grief but stringing the moments into a larger trajectory), O’Connor adds:
Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together 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.
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… 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.
Although volumes have been written about the psychology, philosophy, and poetics of grief — none more piercing than the Joan Didion classic, none more practical than Seneca’s advice to his bereaved mother — there is something singularly revealing about exploring grief from the point of view of the brain beneath the mind, which must begin at the developmental beginning. Childhood — the brain’s most fertile growth period, when most of its major infrastructure is laid out — is also our training ground for loss. Every time we are separated from our primary caregivers, we experience scale-models of loss; every time they return, we learn that the loss of their presence is not a loss of their person, of their love. (A pause worth taking: every abandonment is a miniature of grief.)
In those formative attachments, we also learn the role we ourselves play in the relationship. Because, in building its relational world-map, the brain is constantly computing our loved ones’ position in three dimensions — time, space, and closeness, also known as psychological distance — we learn the causal link between our behavior and a caregiver’s position in the closeness dimension, just like we learn the causal link between our bodily movements and our position in space. When there is secure attachment, the child learns that throughout various surface disruptions, situational factors, and passing emotional weather patterns, there is a steadfast underlying closeness. O’Connor writes:
Closeness is partially under our control, and we learn how to maintain and nurture this closeness, but we also trust those who love us to maintain that closeness as well.
The obvious — and heartbreaking — corollary is that children who grow up without secure attachment experience the pangs of miniature grief much more readily throughout life, with each departure of a loved one, however temporary, because trusting a continuity of closeness does not come naturally to us. But no matter the formative experience of closeness, human beings are universally undone by the death of someone close — the final abandonment, at once the most abstract and the most absolute absence, in which our brains simply cannot compute the total removal of a person so proximate and important from the fabric of psychological spacetime.
Citing the disoriented devastation of a woman ghosted by a lover, O’Connor notes that “ghosting” is the neurologically appropriate word-choice for such abandonments — studied under fMRI, the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to “ghosting” behaves much the same way as the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to death, the mental map suddenly crumbled and torn to pieces. O’Connor describes the strange yet strangely sensical way in which the brain copes with this incomprehensible disruption of reality:
If your brain cannot comprehend that something as abstract as death has happened, it cannot understand where the deceased is in space and time, or why they are not here, now, and close. From your brain’s perspective, ghosting is exactly what happens when a loved one dies. As far as the brain is concerned, they have not died. The loved one has, with no explanation, stopped returning our calls — stopped communicating with us altogether. How could someone who loves us do that? They have become distant, or unbelievably mean, and that is infuriating. Your brain doesn’t understand why; it doesn’t understand that dimensions can simply disappear. If they don’t feel close, then they just feel distant, and you want to fix it rather than believe they are permanently gone. This (mis)belief leads to an intense upwelling of emotions.
If a person we love is missing, then our brain assumes they are far away and will be found later. The idea that the person is simply no longer in this dimensional world, that there are no here, now, and close dimensions, is not logical.
Drawing on brain imaging studies, she adds:
The ephemeral sense of closeness with our loved ones exists in the physical, tangible hardware of our brain.
The particular bit of hardware is the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex — our built-in GPS of love. Scanning the environment and processing innumerable bits of sensory information, the PCC is constantly calibrating and recalibrating the psychological distance between us and the people we love, tightening the bond the closer we feel and loosening it when we sense distancing. Death turns the GPS into a crude compass trying to orient to an all-pervading, ever-shifting magnetic field suddenly bereft of its true north. O’Connor writes:
After the death of a loved one, the incoming messages seem scrambled for a while. At times, closeness with our deceased loved one feels incredibly visceral, as though they are present in the room, here and now. At other times, the string seems to have fallen off the board — not shorter or longer than it was before, but simply stolen from us entirely.
This confusion is so fundamental and so primal, so beyond the reach of reason, that it befalls minds indiscriminately along the spectrum of intelligence and self-awareness — a reality most clearly and devastatingly evinced in the extraordinary love letter Richard Feynman wrote to his wife 488 days after her death and 6,994 days before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
But O’Connor notes that while Western physicians long believed such continuing bonds across the life-death divide to be a symptom of poor coping with grief that makes for poorer bonds with the living, recent research drawing on various grief rituals and customs from cultures around the world has demonstrated that such ongoing inner dialogue with the dead might actually enrich our relationships with the living and allow us to show up for them in a fuller, more openhearted way. She writes:
Our understanding of ourselves changes as we gain wisdom through experience. Our relationships with our living loved ones can grow more compassionate and resonant with gratitude as we age. We can also allow our interactions with our beloved ones who are gone to grow and change, even if only in our minds. This transformation of our relationship with them can affect our capacity to live fully in the present, and to create aspirations for a meaningful future. It can also help us to feel more connected to them, to the best parts of them… Their absence from our physical world does not make our relationship to them any less valuable.
Instead of imagining an alternate what if reality, we must learn to be connected to them with our feet planted firmly in the present moment. This transformed relationship is dynamic, ever-changing, in the way that any loving relationship is ever-changing across months and years. Our relationship with our deceased loved one must reflect who we are now, with the experience, and perhaps even the wisdom, we have gained through grieving. We must learn to restore a meaningful life.
The greatest challenge, of course, is the perennial challenge of the human mind — how to integrate seemingly contradictory needs or ideas in such a way that they coexist harmoniously, perhaps even magnify each other, rather than cancel each other out. Without such integration, any new relationship can feel like a threat to this ongoing inner bond with the dead, undamming a flood of grief at the notion of emotional erasure: grief for the grief itself, for that outstretched hand holding on to the gone and to ourselves at the same time, to the map as it used to be. This is a fear so understandable as to cusp on the universal. It is also — and this might be the most assuring part of O’Connor’s research — a neurophysiologically misplaced fear. Within the brain, every person we love leaves a tangible, structural imprint, encoded in synapses that can never be vanquished or replaced by new and different love. Because that bond — like every bond, like every idea, like the universe itself — was “only ever conjured up in the mind,” it is there too that it always lives, unassailable by other minds and other events.
Gaining a new relationship is simply not going to fill the hole that exists. Here is the key — the point of new roles and new relationships is not to fill the hole. Expecting that they will can only lead to disappointment.
The point is that if we are living in the present, we need to have someone who loves us and cares for us, and we need someone to love and care for as well. The only way to enjoy a fulfilling relationship in the future, however, is to start one in the present. If we can imagine a future in which we are loved, then we must start a relationship that eventually will become important to us in a way that is different from our previous relationship, but rewarding and sustaining.
Understood this way, then, the ongoing relationship with the gone is a lavishment to other loves, for it has made us exactly who we are — the person doing the loving, the person being loved, the mapmaker of present and possible worlds. O’Connor offers neural affirmation for this poetic aspiration:
After a loved one dies, they are clearly no longer with us in the physical world, which each day proves to us. On the other hand, they are not gone, because they are with us in our brain and in our mind. The physical makeup of our brain — the structure of our neurons — has been changed by them. In this sense, you could say that a piece of them physically lives on. That piece is the neural connections protected within our skull, and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death. So, they are not entirely “out there,” and they are not entirely “in here,” either. You are not one, not two. That is because the love between two people, that unmistakable but usually indescribable property, occurs between two people. Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us. This experience reaches beyond the love for the flesh and bones of the person we once knew on this earthly plane. Now loving is an attribute of us, regardless of who we share it with, regardless of what is given to us in return. This is a transcendent experience, a felt sense of being loving without needing anything in return. In the very best moments together, we learned to love and to be loved. Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.
Complement The Grieving Brain with a mathematician’s geometric model for living with grief and this soulful animated film of “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — the most beautiful homily on the emotional paradox of loss I know — then revisit Nick Cave’s life-honed wisdom on grief as a portal to greater aliveness.
Published May 25, 2022