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The importance of remembrance: In this image, a woman remembers a lost loved one.

The Grieving Brain: Why Grief Is a Natural Reaction to Loss

Learn what's happening in the grieving brain, and why the emotions we feel are a natural reaction to loss.

Rebecca Soffer

Apr 25, 2022

Struggling deeply after loss is a perfectly natural thing. And questioning why we are struggling is also normal. But having an insight into the scientific perspective on this universal experience can make us realize that there’s nothing “wrong” with us for feeling like grief is hard.

In a recent “Light After Loss" Facebook Live episode, Modern Loss' Rebecca Soffer hosted a discussion about practical knowledge that can help us better understand what happens when we grieve and how to navigate loss with more ease and grace. She was joined by Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. O’Connor directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress Lab, which investigates the effects of grief on the brain and the body.

Here are some key takeaways from their conversation:

What is the difference between ‘grief’ and ‘grieving’?

Grief is the natural human reaction to loss; it’s all the feelings and reactions in a moment, the ferocious wave that knocks you off your feet. It feels awful in a way that you didn’t anticipate and potentially makes you think that you won’t get through it.

Grieving is the changing of your experience over time. After a while, the feelings may still be awful, but people can come to recognize the waves and know that as hard as they are to endure, they will probably get through them. In short, the feeling can be the same, but you can change your experience with that feeling over time.

We are each the expert on our own grief

There is no one right way to do grief. Of course, it can be helpful to seek out research and listen to grief “experts,” but it’s only necessary to take away what actually resonates with and helps us. At the end of the day, not everything that we read or see will relate to our own personal experience.

How does the brain handle grief?

Our brain is set up to expect that our loved ones will show up again. The brain is a prediction machine. If you’ve been with someone for a while, it’s not a good prediction that they won’t be there tomorrow, and it could take us a long time to get used to their absence after they die.

Grief is the natural human reaction to loss; it’s all the feelings and reactions in a moment, the ferocious wave that knocks you off your feet.

For example, when you say your morning goodbyes before heading to work, typically there’s no doubt in your mind that you will see that person again. The time and space of keeping track of our close loved ones is something that our brain devotes a lot of time and space to doing. In the unusual situation when a person dies, the brain’s answer is, “If they’re not here, go find them.”

It’s very hard for the brain to understand that there is no longer a map to get to that person. That’s why we can pick up the phone to call someone and remember afterward that they won’t answer. There’s no need to be hard on yourself for doing this; that’s just how the brain works. All of the habits we have continue to stick around for a very long time. This is how our brain learns what’s going on.

Neurologically, what happens with our emotions in grief?

All of the chemicals in our brain – dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol – are trying to motivate us to stay in touch with our loved ones. In daily life, this makes a lot of sense (you don’t want to forget to pick your daughter up from school). All of that neurochemistry is motivating and driving us to maintain our relationships, so all of the emotions – the guilt, grief, anger over the situation and at them – come about because that person is so important to us. That doesn’t change the first day after they die. We have to learn how to integrate that experience into our ongoing life.

This article was authored by ModernLoss.com, which offers candid conversations about grief and meaningful community throughout the long arc of loss.


Rebecca Soffer Headshot