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.
Kathryn Hollins says
Annabel, this is brilliant advice and beautifully described with heart and science. Thank you for sharing.
Annabel Streets says
Thank you for reading! It’s an illuminating book…
Annabel Streets says
You’re most welcome…
Elisabeth Jobson says
Dear Annabel – thank you with all my heart for this article about grief I just took time to read… recently bereaved myself I took HUGE comfort in the neuro-biological element introduced by the writings of Ms. O’Connor!! A rational explanation and “coping” HINTS connected with this approach are TOTALLY on my wavelength!!!
In my case the grief already began, whilst my darling was still alive… his brain went. It was NOT dementia, nor Alzheimer’s: his accompanying medic – a Doctor of Psychology and Psychiatry – in a closed psychiatric ward attached to a general hospital to deal with the PHYSICAL ailments, – called me frequently, regularly with up-dates. He explained to me that the brain of my darling was rapidly and irrevocably destroyed by the toxins caused by a lethal combination of physical ailments: long-term insulin-dependent diabetes and the onset of necrosis, kidney cancer and the recurrence of colon cancer. The necessary medication (one of them an instantly addictive psycho-pharmakon called TAVOR) to keep him calm did contribute, too. My husband had asked for surgery to deal with the cancers, which was denied due to the risk he might not survive the op(s). My husband refused the “life-saving” offer of another op: double above the knee-amputation. It was quite evident that he no longer wished to live…
I had LOST my TRUE darling ages ago and was not allowed to see him in his last months (due to the closed ward, but also due to COVID restrictions in all hospitals here in Germany…) – the grief had already begun.
Suffice it to say, the release he experienced as he was allowed to come home “to die”, which took three days and three night (when my dog and I watched over him pretty much NON-STOP – only interrupted by quick breaks to relieve or feed or water ourselves) was absolutely OVERWHELMING. My husband had been one of the most charismatic people in the world and we had been VERY close. I’m going to have his urn (in Germany cremations are NOT public, all is arranged by independent funeral organizers, who accompany you throughout the burial process, then the churches usually take over) buried on Valentine’s Day. He was also the MOST ROMANTIC man in the whole wild wide world 🙂 Days, after he was picked up by the funeral directors, I found a little hand-written note by him under my pass-word booklet… it was not dated, so it could have been there for AGES… who knows – here goes: “When there is a tomorrow when we are no longer together, remember that you are braver than the brave, wiser than the wise and that I shall always be with you. And you are strong, be strong” – this almost hypnotic tiny note (no more than 2X2 inches) has helped me sooooooooooooooo much. Whenever I look at the many photos of him around (he was an actor and an author) this MANTA springs to mind and I FEEL him… call me weird, but it HELPED and helps me STILL as I feel his presence still…
Sometimes, when I see how other people conduct their relationships I wish them some of my husband’s inimitable ESPRIT….
I wish you healing. BE well, DO well. Be HAPPY!!!
Thank you, you’re BRILLIANT!
Love & hug.
Li and hound Elkie xx
Annabel Streets says
Hi Li, I’m so sorry for all you are going through. Yes, hand-written notes are overwhelmingly powerful and I hope future generations never stop writing by hand. So much spirit is contained within hand-written words – no typed note can really compete. Things like this are anchors for holding when we feel completely at sea. Also photos that you can hold. Not just photos on a screen. That was important to me. I think death is so mysteriously disembodied, we need to be able to touch, to smell. So I understand the extraordinary power of your husband’s note to you (and what a lovely surprise… he must have enjoyed planning it!). Small is better – you can carry it with you, wear it, hold it in the palm of your hand – he must have known that too! Give yourself lots of time and know that you will never forget him. He sounds a remarkable man – how lucky you are to have had him in your life. Take care, Annabel x
I really appreciated reading this. My mum passed away 4 months ago. I found Christmas hard. I felt guilty for not doing enough for her in recent years. Her passing was expected and horrible to watch (liver cancer). Grief has felt odd. It feels like the older I get the more I feel it part of life, I suppose because it is expected with a person elderly and unwell. In contrast, the shock of losing someone close much younger and unexpectedly a few years ago, has taken years to process and accept. What you have written here makes me understand those stages of grief more. Thank you.
Annabel Streets says
I’m so sorry to hear about your losses, Catherine. I agree, they are (rather horribly) part of the human condition. Like O’Connor, I think grief makes us more humane. But it’s also a constant reminder of the privilege of life – we have to hang on to that. To be alive is a wonderful thing – even when it doesn’t feel like that! And yes, it can take forever (quite literally) to process loss, which is why I loved Louise Bourgeois’s quote. Better to know, from the beginning, that you will always miss them, and that herein lies the magical thinking – a gift in itself. Keep going, Annabel x
Thank you so much for introducing me to this work. It makes so much sense of my 2 year journey (so far) with grief over the loss of my life partner and one parent. I too did not resonate with the “5 stages”. In fact they made me feel angry and helpless with their banality and over rationalising. These insights however, struck me immediately ‘in the gut’ as powerful and supportive. I’m looking forward to reading the book.
Annabel Streets says
So sorry to hear about your losses, and I hope you take a modicum of comfort from O’Connor’s book. I’m not sure how the ‘5 stages’ held sway for so long – I suppose we liked the promise of an end! O’ Connor also makes it clear that we all grieve differently, no right way or wrong way. Just our own way – which is, at root, our brain’s long struggle to make sense of profound loss, and to re-wire itself accordingly. I hope the book fascinates you as it did me… Annabel x
Thank you so much for this very interesting article.
Annabel Streets says