How your brain copes with grief, and why it takes time to heal

Mary-Frances O'Connor says that grief is tied to different brain functions. It can include things like being able to recall memories, taking the perspective of another person, and even things like regulating our heart rate.

Adam Lister is a photographer.

After someone we love dies, holidays are not the same. Even small things like an empty seat at the dinner table or a less than desirable gift can serve as reminders of how our lives have changed. Mary-Frances O'Connor, a clinical psychologist, says we shouldn't hide our feelings or avoid these realizations.

"Grief is a universal experience and when we can connect, it is better," she says.

O'Connor studies what happens in our brains when we experience grief. She says grieving teaches us how to be in the world without someone we love. The background is running all the time for people who are grieving, thinking about new habits and how they interact now.

It can be difficult to adjust to the fact that we won't be spending time with our loved ones again. Changes in the brain are involved. "If you have a grief experience and you have support from the people around you, you will be able to adapt."

O'Connor's upcoming book, The Grieving Brain, explores what scientists know about how our minds deal with the loss of a loved one.

Interview highlights.

The grieving process.

The sense of who we are is bound up with the other person when we are in a relationship. The word sibling means two people. We have to learn a new set of rules when the other person is gone. The brain really does think that the "we" is as important as the "you" and "me." It is a good reason for people to say that they have lost part of themselves. The brain feels that way and codes the "we" as much as the "you" and the "I."

There is a difference between grief and grieving.

You feel like a wave when you grieve, it's that emotional state that knocks you off your feet. It has a time component to it. Grieving is what happens when we lose a loved one and we have to carry their absence with us. The reason that this distinction makes sense is that grief is a natural response to loss. A woman who lost her mother as a young person is going to experience grief on her wedding day because it's a new moment.

Someone turned up the volume on the phone. When we're grieving, the anger feels so intense that it can interfere with our relationships.

Our relationship to that grief changes over time. It feels awful and unfamiliar the first time, and you're knocked off your feet with grief. Maybe the 101st time, you think to yourself, "I don't want this to be true." I know that I will get through the wave.

Emotions involved in grieving.

The range of emotions that someone experiences when they're grieving is the same as the range of emotions we have in a relationship. There's panic, anxiety, sadness, and yearning. We forget that there's also difficulty concentrating and confusion about what happens next.

The intensity of the emotions strikes me. Someone turned up the volume on the phone. When we're grieving, the anger feels so intense that it can interfere with our relationships. At a dinner party, you have someone blow up and you wonder what's going on with them. To try and remember that they're grieving and everything is revved up a little bit.

What is happening in our brains?

There are studies that look at grief and the momentary reaction to it. There are less than a few studies looking at more than one moment in the same person. snapshots are what we know about the neurobiology of grief right now.

One of the things we know is that grief is tied to a lot of different brain functions, from being able to recall memories to being able to regulate our heart rate. There are a lot of different parts of the brain that play a part in this experience.

On a long period of grief.

You want to know when the wave of grief will end. There is a very small proportion of people who might have what we now call a long term grief disorder, something we start looking for after six months or a year. In such cases, the person has not been able to function the way they wish they could because of their condition. They're not getting out the door to work or getting dinner on the table for their kids, or they're not able to listen to music because it's too upsetting. It would be helpful to intervene and get them back on the healing path, where they will still feel grief, but they will adapt to it differently.

"complicated grief" was the term that we used for a long time. There's a reason I like the term complicated, because it makes you think of complicated things.

The loved ones that are left behind made the sacrifice of not being with their loved ones in the hospital in order to stop the spread. They did something for the greater good, and that sacrifice needs to be recognized.

One of those is the grief-related rumination that people sometimes experience. The better term is "would've, should've, could've" They roll through your head. The problem with these thoughts is that they all end in a scenario where the person doesn't die. That's not reality. There is no answer, there are infinite possibilities, and it is not helping us to adapt to the reality that they did die. Our virtual version isn't helping us to learn how to be in the world now.

It's less than 10% of people who experience grief. It's true that 90 percent of people experience difficult grief and suffering, but don't have a disorder after losing a loved one. I think it's important to remember that, because we don't want to hide grief away, and we need to get people back on track.

How to support people who are grieving.

When you care for someone who is going through this terrible process of losing someone, it's more about listening to them and seeing where they're at in their learning than it is about trying to make them feel better. The point is not to cheer them up. The point is to be with them and let them know that you will be with them and that you can imagine a future for them where they are not constantly being knocked over by the waves of grief.

Losing people to the Pandemic.

One of the topics that is not talked about in the national conversation is the fact that so many of the deaths of our loved ones happened in hospitals. We were trying to stop the spread of COVID. Family members in hospitals was not logical.

It means that people don't have the memories of seeing their loved one get sick and the changes that happen in their body that prepare them for the possibility that they might die. It's much harder to learn what happened if you don't have those memories. Many people feel like they're not really gone yet.

I don't hear a lot about the sacrifice made by the loved ones who are left behind in order to stop the spread of COVID. I think that sacrifice needs to be recognized. Helping people heal so that they understand why they're having a difficult time. They gave up something while they did something for the greater good.

An excerpted audio version of this interview was first aired on the NPR daily science show, Short Wave, hosted by Emily Kwong.