My family had another Christmas of grieving this year. In our household, December is swiftly becoming synonymous with loss, absence and bereavement.
But since my father died at Christmas two years’ ago (I wrote about the debilitating impact of grief here) , I’ve read many books and studies of grief. We’ve come a long way since the ‘Five Stages’ (a largely misunderstood and recently discredited approach to grieving) and I now recognise the sadness that accompanies loss as a necessary part of life, rather than a linear process through which we neatly (or not) stumble. As we get older, we must inevitably live with an accumulation of loss – or with a swelling number of cavities, to use a dental analogy. There is simply no way round this. The more we love, the larger the cavities. More than fifty years after her mother’s death, the sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, said she still missed her mother every day. Two years in, I feel exactly the same about my father. Not a day passes when I don’t think about him, remember him and, above all, miss him.
If grieving is an inherent part of ageing, how do we do it well? One of the books that best showed me how to do this was The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How we Learn from Love and Loss (Harper 2022) by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor. O’Connor examines the workings of grief in the brain, explaining how relationships (with people or pets) literally re-wire our brains. When they die, our brains struggle. We cannot understand where they are, or why they have gone. We try to locate them in time and in space. We blame ourselves for not keeping them safe. These emotions, says O’Connor, are as ancient as air. And the closer we were to the deceased, the more our brain struggles. ‘Closeness’ says O’Connor, is a dimension (like time and space). In experiments, the brain has been shown to track ‘closeness’ – we know which friends we can depend on or call upon, for example. When they go (or die) we must rewire that part of our brain, a process that can take a very long time and is – says O’Connor, ‘very mentally demanding.’
Which is to say, grief is love transformed by death. O’Connor believes that ‘grief evolved to enable us to cope with loss.’ Without it, the human race would have died out a long time ago. We are hardwired, she says, to wait for those we love to return (she gives examples of penguins sitting on eggs and waiting for their partners, and small children awaiting the return of parents). And so, while one part of us knows a loved one has gone, another part of us expects them to return – a conflict that can be excruciating, and often means that grief endures for much longer than we expect.
O’Connor identifies the many parts of the brain (the pre frontal cortex, the anterior cortex, the hippocampus etc) that have to work overtime as we process complex and often devastating loss. In MRI scans, the bereaved brain is often quite marked – with blood flowing to and from very different regions, particularly in sudden or violent deaths. The grieving brain simply doesn’t work like an everyday brain. This too is stressful and exhausting, she points out.
Understanding the neuronal biology of grief is still in its infancy, but O’Connor does have some suggestions for easing the pain – or for making it a little less of a struggle for our emotionally overloaded brains.
Firstly, we need time and flexibility. Having to adhere to rigid schedules set by others isn’t conducive to grieving. If you can take bereavement leave, do so. Otherwise clear out your diary – now isn’t the time for multiple commitments.
Interestingly O’Connor considers ‘avoidance’ (otherwise known as suppression or denial) as ‘a viable strategy.’ For some, facing the painful reality of loss, or of their own mortality, is just too much. There is no right or wrong way to experience bereavement – we must accept the calling of our brain. And surrender to it.
O’Connor, however, didn’t follow a ‘strategy of avoidance’ when she was grieving. Instead she chose to walk and cry every day, letting the tears come and go ‘like the rain.’ Her studies suggest that physical movement is important: ‘eventually the body tires itself out and the mind does as well.’ Social contact is often vital, and having friends or family she could call at any time (even if she chose not to) made all the difference to O’Connor.
We all grieve differently, but O’Connor’s most memorable piece of advice (to me at any rate, and only when the time was right) was to seek out new memories, and to do novel things. ‘Making new memories,’ she says ‘is part of how we survive.’ This doesn’t mean we forget those that we’ve lost. Instead, it enables our brain to focus on forging new pathways instead of becoming tangled up in old pathways (that are no longer apt). I did lots of new things in the two years after my father died – not realising that I was rewiring my brain! – and they added a dimension of magical thinking that I now look back on with enormous gratitude. In an odd way, he gifted me these experiences. And I’m glad I sought them out.
O’Connor’s other piece of memorable advice was on the subject of sleep. Resist sleeping pills, she says. But keep your waking, eating and moving as regular as possible. The bereaved sleep differently – their struggling brains steal time from deep, REM and Non-REM sleep. Meanwhile their bodies pump out adrenalin and cortisol. None of this is conducive to sound sleep, but O’Connor is unequivocal, saying sleeping pills ‘do not help grief.’ Indeed, over time, the pills make our sleep worse. Like grief, insomnia is an experience we must learn to deal with. Both will ‘heal over time.’
We cannot force ourselves to sleep, just as we cannot hasten our recovery from grief. Sometimes we simply have to accept, surrender, wait. This – she adds – is also how we build resilience. So that next time, possibly (just possibly) the sharp sting of grief may be fractionally less sharp.
O’Connor’s book helped me understand the extreme load our brains deal with during bereavement. It’s not a book to read in the immediate aftermath of a death. But a year on, it provided me with a sort of compass for grieving. So that, this Christmas, I could make better sense of the emotions descending on us – once again.
I, for one, am delighted to say goodbye to the so-called five stages of grief. Just as we suspected, loss and bereavement are infinitely more complex and it’s time we understood that.