The Complexity of Grief
Grief is a normal response to loss that changes our familiar orientation to the world. We must adapt to this new and often unwanted reality. This post is part of a series exploring grief and loss with a deepened focus on the complexity of the process.
Sometimes loss brings up our unfulfilled hopes and wishes that things had been different. Sometimes we also have loving and tender memories to reflect upon. This range of complex and conflicting emotions is part of what makes grief so challenging. Having an understanding of the neuroscience of grief can illuminate ways that we can navigate that complexity. Take the time to attend to your unique experience as you move through your process of grief, grit, and grace.
“The holistic organization of who you are as a person cannot be reduced to neuroscience, nor to one set of emotional responses. Just as the music that comes from a well played violin is more than the strings, the bridge, or the bow, you too are more than the sum of your parts.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Neuroscience of Grief
Let’s take a look at the experience of grief from the perspective of the brain and body. When we feel bonded and close to our loved ones the body produces the body’s “feel good chemicals” that include oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Loss triggers an immediate drop in the feel-good chemicals and a rise in stress-chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These engage the fight, flight, and freeze response.
Stress cortisols lead to a cascade of physical, emotional, and mental symptoms. They cause elevations in the heart rate and cause blood to flow to the muscles in preparation for self-protection. This can lead to tension in the chest, shoulders, and a general feeling of unrest. It can be harder to simply slow down and take a deep breath. Cortisols also interfere with our ability to digest and contribute to sensations of dizziness, difficulties with concentration, nausea, and lack of appetite. When stress cortisols are at their highest it is common to feel numb, cut-off, and disconnected. You can think of this process as your body’s build in self-protection mechanism.
As the initial shock of loss subsides we begin to feel the pain. Studies using fMRIs with grieving people identify the areas of the brain that gets activated in loss. (These include the Periaqueductal gray, the Anterior Cingulate, the Nucleus Accumbens, and the Somatosensory Cortices). These are the same areas of the brain responsible for the separation anxiety experienced by the infant and are associated with crying and yearning for reconnection. Furthermore, these same areas of the brain are associated with pain. Another reason why grief physically hurts.
fMRI studies also reveal that the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal lobes “light up” when we reflect upon the stories, memories, and associations we have to our loved one. The amygdala is what we call “state-dependent” which means that when you feel sad you are more likely to remember other times that you felt sad. For example, you might also notice that grief over one loss brings up other historical losses; especially those that were not resolved.
Importantly, the amygdala is involved in painful emotions of fear, anger, and sadness, AND also involved in the positive emotions of happiness, pleasure, and joy. We can modify our emotional experience by engaging our prefrontal cortex. Research suggests that we engage our prefrontal cortex when we put our memories and reflections into words. For example, talking or writing about your loved one.
As you engage the prefrontal cortex and amygdala to process loving, tender memories of your loved one (providing that such memories are available). Over time these reflections can offer a bridge, allowing you to create sustained connections with people you have lost.
Regrets and Resentments
Loss typically brings up our unfulfilled hopes and wishes that things had been different. This can be the case if we have lost a loved one who had been a key loving support person in our lives but these feelings can be amplified when we lose a loved one who was never there in the first place. Often the complex experience of grief involves mixed feelings regarding unfinished business or unresolved aspects of our relationships.
It is quite common to have feelings of regret and lingering resentments. Working through the unresolved aspects of grief can provide tremendous relief. Take the time to write about your resentments, unfulfilled hopes, and regrets. Take note of your feelings. What support do you need to move through these feelings?
From Loss to Love
Often grief resolves not through “letting go” or “moving on” but rather finding a way to sustain a loving connection with people we have lost. It is unarguably essential to acknowledge the sad and painful aspects of the death of a loved one; however, when available, we also reflect upon the loving and tender parts of the relationship. Over time these memories become ways to develop a sustained connection with a loved one. This might occur through writing about your positive memories or taking notice of how your loved one lives on through your actions and choices.
Here is a personal example from my life:
I had a beloved grandfather who died shortly after my son was born. He had been one of my closest relatives throughout my childhood and was a supporter during difficult times. His death hit me hard as one of my strongest allies was gone. I had to draw upon my support systems in a new way when facing his death. I attended a group grief ritual honoring his place in my life, talked about him to friends and family, and have written about the role he played in my life. As I processed my memories I noticed several special moments that stood out…sitting in the breakfast nook talking as he drank his coffee and walking with him through his garden. Now, when I need to connect to him I visualize myself there…spending time talking with him…and imagine what he might say in return.
During times of grief take a few moments to write down your loving memories, appreciations, and positive reflections. Notice how this feels in your body. In what ways can you call upon these memories as a sustained connection with your loved one? In what way do they live on in you?
Sometimes loss brings up our unfulfilled hopes and wishes that things had been different. Sometimes we also have loving and tender memories to reflect upon. This range of complex and conflicting emotions is part of what makes grief so challenging. Take the time to attend to your unique experience as you move through your process of grief, grit, and grace.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.