Dr. Mary Frances O’Connor, author of “Grieving as a Form of Learning: Insights from Neuroscience Applied to Grief and Loss,” has studied grief for over two decades and seeks to understand what happens to our brains when we grieve. Her findings point to grief as a kind of “learning,” where we work to understand our new reality without our loved ones.
In order to explain the process, she asks, “How would you feel if one morning your dining room table was gone?” You didn’t see it leave; it’s just gone. The absence of it grabs your attention because you expected it to be there. She likens this to grief.
We all have two ways of seeing the world: one through our senses and the other through our minds. Our senses say, “Hey, there’s no table there,” but our minds say, “I expected the table to be there just like it was every other day.” It’s like a map referring to something that used to be there but isn’t anymore.
O’Connor studies how our brains change with a deep attachment bond (a bond that happens in all mammals). Whether it’s an attachment bond between a parent and a child or between two other people (usually romantic), our brains change after it forms. Through her work with brain scans, O’Connor deduced that after the attachment forms, we expect our loved ones to be there forever. This rewiring of our brains makes it very difficult to accept the world after we’ve lost them.
By becoming attached to someone, we’ve permanently altered the make-up of our brain. When you’ve lost someone close to you, you might imagine they’re somewhere out there, just beyond reach. You might even feel it and expect them to walk in one morning saying, “Here I am.” According to O’Connor, this is because our mental map can’t accept the new input from our senses. Our brains are to blame for these faulty maps! They don’t update after we’ve lost a loved one, and our grief could be seen as a disconnect between our new world and the expectation that our loved ones would always be in it.
Grief is a difficult learning process. It’s the kind of learning that doesn’t come easy and requires our brains to work hard to understand our new reality. The attachment bonds with our loved ones never go away. That’s why we should do the grief work that feels right to us, whether it’s telling stories, reminiscing with others, or something more project-oriented and even solitary. From O’Connor’s view, it’s important to know that grief is hardwired into us. It is as human as breathing and nothing to ever feel ashamed about.
O'Connor, Mary Frances. (2022). Grieving as a Form of Learning: Insights from Neuroscience Applied to Grief and Loss. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 317-322.