Losing a loved one is an unavoidable cost of having close relationships. When loss happens, there’s a period of grieving that’s experienced differently from person to person. But one thing happens to all of us – our brains try to solve the problem of where that person went. This deeply rooted neurobiology leads to a grieving process where our brains are trying to update with our new reality.
Podcast guest, Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD, says you haven’t failed because you’re feeling grief. Dr. O’Connor is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, where she directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab, which investigates the effects of grief on the brain and the body. Her book, The Grieving Brain, brings together accessible science and practical knowledge that provides a more nuanced understanding of what happens when we grieve and how to navigate loss with more ease and grace.
In this episode, Mary-Frances describes what happens in our brains when we lose a loved one. She explains the difference between grief and grieving, and how it looks different for everyone. Mary-Frances debunks the five stages of grief, and we discuss how it’s not a linear journey. Finally, she leaves us with some ways we may get stuck in grief and how to be a friend to someone grieving.
- The brain has a problem to solve when someone dies. There’s a deep-seated belief that we’ll always be there for each other. When our loved one goes away, our brain is saying to go get them. There’s a long learning curve for your brain to update.
- Grief is experienced any time you become aware that someone close to you is gone and it can come in waves. You’ll always feel it, but it will change over time.
- Grieving is the way grief changes over time.
- Grieving is not a linear pattern and there is no prescription of how to grieve.
- There are two ways we may get stuck in grief – rumination and avoidance:
- Rumination (the would of, could of, should ofs)- People may run through the many scenarios that could have gone differently.
- Avoidance comes in a lot of flavors – work, drinking, video games. If you’re trying to avoid your thoughts or feelings, it’s not a great long-term strategy.
- Grieving is going to look different for each of us. We have a big book of judgements when it comes to grief and what other people should be experiencing, in what order, and how much.
- Social support is incredibly important as we’re grieving. You have to borrow their hope.
On Death & Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, where she directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab, which investigates the effects of grief on the brain and the body. O’Connor earned a doctorate from the University of Arizona in 2004 and completed a fellowship at UCLA.
Following a faculty appointment at UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, she returned to the University of Arizona in 2012. Her work has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, and Psychological Science, and featured in Newsweek, the New York Times, and The Washington Post. Having grown up in Montana, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. For more information go to https://www.maryfrancesoconnor.com/.
You can connect with her:
LinkedIn: Mary-Frances O’Connor