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DOES GRIEF ACTUALLY AFFECT OUR BRAIN?

doctor pointing to brain scans
Grief can change the way our brain functions.

It may seem strange, but neuroscience has shown us what happens inside our brains when we are grieving for a loved one, whether that involves anticipatory grief (as we watch someone dying) or bereavement (grieving a loved one who has died).


This is especially true if the loss is one that “changes everything” such as a spouse.


But in all cases there is a “rewiring” that occurs.


In an article by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D entitled “Laugh, Cry, Live”, she discusses how our brain is made to form attachments. Over time our brain tracks our important relationship along three dimensions: space, time and depth of the connection.


Our most important bonds are permanently and deeply encoded in our brain as certain people are special to us and will always be with us. This encoding happens during intimate, intense and loving moments.


Death and other events can separate us, however the non-conscious brain understands that when we are separated for short times, we will always be reunited, which helps us deal with the shorter separations, as we are sure we will be together again.


NEURAL MAPS


According to Davis, the brain tracks our relationships by creating neural maps. Neural maps for long-term relationships contain very detailed data about our loved ones and our time together, which is assimilated through actual lived experiences together.


The brain uses this information to predict and make sense of what’s going on each minute. For example, in the morning your brain hears someone breathing in bed beside you and instantly knows it’s your partner. And, your brain knows the time your partner will return home for work, the details on what your partner will do (buy groceries, celebrate your birthday, leave messes on the floor, etc.).


With the learning your brain does, it allows life to flow more easily with realistic expectations, and familiar and predictable routines. When your loved one passes, your grieving brain is required to learn to make sense of them being gone and redraw the neural map to show the new reality.


This is especially true if you were planning to spend many more years together. This learning process is a huge and complicated job that our brain performs.


FIGURING IT OUT


Your brain will struggle to reconcile two things:

1) the conscious knowledge that your loved one is gone; and

2) the powerful, intense, embedded knowledge that they are everlasting.


Davis gives example of this conflict:  You can’t seem to accept/believe your loved one is gone. How can that be? We were going to be together forever! 


Interesting enough, you may feel, see or hear your loved one, due to the fact your brain is holding on to “here, now and close” and construes common sensations, sights and sounds as signs of their presence. 


You may feel disorientated and in a dream-like state, wondering if you will every wake from the nightmare, because your relationship with your loved one is everlasting and you both will come back together again. When you are met with these two conflicting pieces of information it produces painful, intense grief and you deeply long for your loved one.


THEN WHAT?


To work through this conflict we make effort to find ways to express our continuing bond with our loved one. You will continue to enjoy interests you shared with your loved one; you spend quality time with children; you journal about your life together with your loved one; you work hard to channel their strengths and characteristics, and continue to feel their presence when you hear familiar music or see certain things.


As your brain redraws the neural map of the lost relationship, and you gradually begin to reinvest your life, you will also gradually and naturally ease away from resisting the reality that they are gone and will not return.


LAGGING BEHIND


Even after your loved one has been gone many months and you know the relationship has dramatically changed, your brain’s neural remapping may lag behind your knowledge. You brain continues to believe the relationship is everlasting and is reluctant to update the neural map just because your loved one has only been gone for a day or even several months.


We must give our brains the time and ample amount of lived experience it needs to absorb the absence, update the predictions and complete this enormously involved remapping.


While this is occurring, your still out dated neural map may make you think, feel and act as if your loved one is here, now and close.


Sadly, your grief can be triggered every time an outdated prediction fails, which can cause you to ruminate on what happened and what will become of you in the future. Davis reminds us the “this monumental rewiring job explains lot of what you’re experiencing as you mourn. You’re not crazy; your brain is rewiring itself, and you need time to feel whole again, reinvent your life and plan a different future without your loved one.”


Hopefully know this and understanding your brain’s process of making sense of your loss will allow you to have more patience and compassion for yourself during this journey.

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