Grief is a universal human experience that touches our hearts at some point in our lives. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job, a cherished dream, or even a pet, grief profoundly affects our emotional and physical well-being. However, amidst the pain and suffering, there is a silver lining. We can learn valuable lessons from love and loss. Giving us these valuable lessons is the neuroscience of grief and how love plays a crucial role in the healing process.

Renowned neuroscientist and psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor’s book “The Grieving Brain” offers many valuable insights into learning from love and loss.

Understanding the neuroscience of griefUnderstanding the neuroscience of grief

The grieving brain undergoes various changes that affect the emotional well-being of the person going through it. O’Connor suggests that grief is a way for the brain to adapt to changes and seek to restore balance. For instance, it is common for the person to experience sadness, lack of energy, loss of appetite, or changes in sleep patterns when mourning. But what is happening inside the brain to create these symptoms?

Inside the mindInside the mind

The prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the insula are crucial regions of the brain that play a significant role in the grieving process. The prefrontal cortex handles complex cognitive functions like decision-making, problem-solving, and self-awareness. The amygdala processes emotions, particularly fear and sadness, while the insula is associated with self-awareness and social behaviour.

We can develop more resilient coping strategies by understanding how these parts of the brain are involved in grief. For example, we can better understand our emotions and make healthier decisions during grieving by engaging our prefrontal cortex through cognitive techniques such as reframing our thoughts or problem-solving.

For instance, the amygdala’s role in processing emotions can help us become more aware of our feelings and validate them without judgment. The insula’s involvement in self-awareness can allow us to practice self-compassion and self-care, recognising our own needs during this challenging time.

Let’s say someone has lost a close friend or family member and is experiencing intense grief. By understanding how the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and insula are involved in the grieving process, they may actively engage in cognitive techniques like journaling to reframe their thoughts about their loss and consequently make better decisions that support their emotional well-being.

JournalingJournaling

Journaling is a powerful and accessible tool for processing loss. By actively engaging in cognitive techniques to reframe your thoughts and emotions, you can use journaling (paper or digital) as a therapeutic practice to support your emotional well-being at home. Journaling helps you to:

  • reflect on your thoughts and emotions
  • reframe your thoughts
  • practice self-compassion
  • set goals for emotional well-being
  • express gratitude

For example, if you observe that you constantly blame yourself for the loss, try reframing your thoughts by acknowledging that you did everything you could at the time and that the situation was beyond your control. Challenge any guilt or self-blame by reminding yourself that grief is a natural process, and it is okay to feel a wide range of emotions.

Positive changes

Grief can also lead to positive changes in brain physiology. One study showed that people who experienced the loss of a partner had increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain involved in empathy and emotional regulation. Subsequently, grief can help us develop resilience and empathy towards others.

Similarly, social support, critical in the grief recovery process, increases activity in the prefrontal cortex and the insula, leading to emotional regulation and enhancing coping mechanisms. In other words, your support systems, such as family, friends, and colleagues, provide comfort, understanding, and empathy during loss and grief, positively affecting brain activity that contributes to the healing process.

Stages of grief

Grief process

O’Connor also suggests that the grieving process includes five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, new evidence-based science shows that the widely accepted theory proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross about the five stages of grief is now outdated. That aside, O’Connor emphasises the importance of self-compassion and understanding during grief. She suggests we must be kind to ourselves and accept that grieving after a loss is expected.

The role of love in the healing process

Love is a powerful force that aids in healing after experiencing loss. Recalling positive memories of the loved one can activate brain regions associated with reward, comfort, and emotional regulation, releasing feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin. Subsequently, love motivates you to engage in healthy coping mechanisms, such as seeking support from others, engaging in self-care, and finding meaning amid grief. Importantly, love provides a sense of connection and support during difficult times, helping you navigate the grieving process more resiliently.

Lessons learned from loss

Although grief is painful, it also offers valuable life lessons. O’Connor’s research suggests that the grief process fosters personal growth, resilience, and empathy towards grieving others. Grief allows introspection, reflection, and understanding our emotions, thoughts, and values. Many individuals who have experienced love and loss have found wisdom, compassion, and purpose through their experiences. Loss is often a time of self-discovery and learning, where we gain insights into ourselves and the world surrounding us.

Hope’s story

“When I lost my best friend to a sudden accident, it felt like my world had crumbled. I was devastated, struggling to make sense of the pain and emptiness I was feeling. But as I slowly moved through the stages of grief, I realised that important lessons were to be learned from my loss. I learned to cherish every moment with my loved ones, to express my love and appreciation openly, and to never take life for granted. I also discovered a newfound resilience within me, as I found ways to cope with the overwhelming emotions and learned to lean on my support system. Through my grief, I developed a deeper sense of empathy towards others who were grieving, and I became more compassionate and understanding towards their pain. I learned to truly listen and be there for others in their need. Today, I carry the wisdom, compassion, and purpose that I gained from my experience with loss, and it has shaped me into a stronger, more empathetic, and resilient individual.”

Applying the lessons learnedApplying the lessons learned

We can actively apply the valuable lessons learned from love and loss in practical ways in our lives. It’s important to prioritise self-care during grief, caring for our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or counselling, can also be beneficial in navigating the complexities of grief. Creating meaningful rituals or tributes to honour a departed loved one can provide comfort and a sense of closure. But as Hope’s story shows, it’s important to cherish and cultivate our relationships while our loved ones are still alive, expressing our love and appreciation to them.

Conclusion

Grief is a natural response to loss, and it can be a challenging journey to navigate. However, the neuroscience of grief, as explored through the insights of Mary-Frances O’Connor, highlights the healing power of love in the grieving process. Love can activate positive responses, motivate healthy coping mechanisms, and foster personal growth and resilience. Mary-Frances O’Connor believes that we can apply the lessons learned from love and loss practically in our lives to help us navigate grief and find meaning amid loss. While grief may be painful, it can also offer growth, understanding, and transformation opportunities. Embrace the healing power of love and loss, and use it as a tool for navigating the complexities of grief and living a meaningful life.