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The grieving brain: How your mind deals with a loved one's death and how to heal

When a loved one dies, your brain is trying to solve a problem. August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day.
Most of us are wired to get through this very difficult time and restore a meaningful life, especially with support. 
Most of us are wired to get through this very difficult time and restore a meaningful life, especially with support. azndc / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

After a loved one passed away, I kept being haunted by the feeling that I didn’t know where he was.

It gnawed at me. Ever since I could remember, I knew where to reach him — whether at home, at work, on a business trip or on vacation. Now, even though I knew he was gone, my mind kept trying to place him somewhere in the world and coming up empty.

This, it turns out, is a common phenomenon when people try to process a loved one’s death. Grief expert and neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor likened it to the same panicked “pop-up in the brain” a parent would get if they were to lose track of their child in a mall.

“Just because we know cognitively that the person has died doesn’t mean those pop-ups won’t happen for a long time as your brain learns this is a whole new world,” O’Connor, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Arizona, told TODAY.

“Part of having a bonded relationship is wanting to seek out the person when they’re away and that becomes just the background of everyday life.”

O’Connor is the author of the book “The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss,” where she explains what grief looks like from the perspective of the “little gray computer” in our heads.

Here are some of her findings about this very universal experience of human suffering:

Grieving is a kind of learning

When a loved one dies, your brain is trying to solve a problem, O’Connor said. It’s always trying to predict what happens next so given that you kissed your spouse goodbye every day when they went to work, your brain is used to predicting they'll be gone for a few hours and then come back again.

“If you’ve been married for many years, and you wake up one morning and your husband or your wife isn’t there next to you in bed, it doesn’t necessarily make a good prediction to assume that they’re gone forever,” she noted.

“So the brain has to process the fact that this person won’t be coming back, and then what does that mean for your life? That means we won’t travel when we retire together or my child is now without a second parent. It takes a long time to learn how that is going to work.”

Grief is different from depression

Grief is all about desperately wanting your loved one to be back and wishing things were the way they were before, O’Connor said. The core feeling in grief is yearning, with a specific person as its object.

Depression is more “global” — not just related to the person who has died, she noted. You feel things are not right in the world in other ways, that people don’t like you or that you’re not doing enough. Even the return of the deceased person wouldn’t ease the depression.

Resilience is the most typical pattern of grieving

Most of us are wired to get through this very difficult time and restore a meaningful life, especially with support, research has found.

“We see that while people experience pain and sadness, most of them never reach the point of not being able to get out to work or not being able to get dinner on the table for their family,” O’Connor said.

The famous five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — are now considered an old, outdated model because not all people go through all of them or in that order, she added.

A minority of people — about 10% — experience complicated or prolonged grief, where severe symptoms last for at least six months and interfere with daily life. But there is no time limit on grief, O’Connor said, so she worried this condition might be over-diagnosed when people mistake typical grieving — which comes with a lot of suffering — for the more severe disorder.

“The death of a loved one is a life-transforming event that we carry with us forever,” she said.

It takes time and experience for your brain to understand the loss

When a loved one dies, your brain needs to update its virtual map of the world, O’Connor writes in her book. It doesn't happen overnight but by repeatedly experiencing mundane little things you do day after day without your spouse. After a month, “you will learn that he didn’t come to breakfast 31 times,” she writes.

There’s nothing magic about the 31 days, with grief lasting much longer, but that month will start to update your “little gray computer.”

When O’Connor experienced grief in her own life, she kept a note taped in her kitchen that read, “Cook. Clean. Work. Play.” It helped remind her about the basic parts of life and to not put a lot of expectations on what she could get done.

Emotional flexibility matters

That means being flexible in how you respond to whatever emotions come up, O’Connor said.

“Sometimes, when that wave of grief knocks you off your feet, it’s appropriate to just collapse in the kitchen and cry and rock yourself back and forth and just be very upset,” she noted.

“Other times, it makes sense to say to yourself, ‘I’m so upset about this and I really have to get the kids to school. I have just got to walk out of this kitchen and get in the car and focus on driving.’”

Emotional flexibility means neither avoiding too much nor ruminating too much. You have to find a way to carry your loved one’s absence with you in a way that also allows you to have a meaningful life.

Your loved one is not gone — they are in your brain

“You will never forget them. They will always be with you and impact your life and what you do and what you value,” O’Connor said.

When neuroscientists look at the brains of humans who are in a bonded loving relationship, they see changes in neural connections and the way proteins are folded in the brain.

“The physical wiring of our brain is made different when we create this bond with another person, and that experience doesn’t go away — that is permanently encoded in our brain,” O’Connor said.

“I have loved this person, my own physical brain is different, thus I carry them literally in my brain. I find that very comforting.”