top of page

4 New Ways to think about Bereavement and Grief

Updated: May 27

This is written for grieving people, anyone who is supporting them and anyone interested in how we grieve.


  1. The Grieving Brain

  2. Continuing Bonds after bereavement

  3. Our Loss and Restoration in grieving

  4. How we grow round grief



Grief is a uniquely painful experience. Unique because there's something exceptional about it. It's usually a life-disrupting and life-changing event.


But unique also because, for each of us, our experience of grief is specific and particular to us. How can it not be? It's rooted in what our deep bond with that person has meant, and continues to mean, to us.


So that being said, how on earth do we manage to get through it?


My aim is to help bring some understanding and self-compassion for you by sharing a few different ways of looking at grief that you may not have come across before. Actually, these 'new' ways are not all that new, but they're not as well known as they deserve to be. I wanted to put them together here because I've found that people usually find them helpful.






1. The grieving brain: You're in a different World?


One of the most difficult, and for many, disorientating aspects of bereavement, grief and loss is the sudden experience of being plunged into a very different world from what you're used to. Nothing now is as it was. You may start to wonder 'what's wrong with me, I can't cope with this?'


In answer to that, neuroimaging research inside the brain has found that there is absolutely nothing 'wrong' with you. It's just that some of your brain's normal neural networks are facing a problem that it's not currently possible for them to solve. This is the root of the 'different world' you're now inhabiting, where nothing feels the same.


What problem does bereavement present to your brain?

You know that your loved one has died and you can't un-know this. It's right there at the forefront for you most of the time.


Meanwhile, because you love them, you're bonded with them. The neural pathways that 'do' bonding in your brain are deeply linked in and embedded with theirs. That's what being bonded means.


Incredibly, what's now been observed and witnessed is that those bonding pathways don't just stop with your loss: they have to 'just keep doing it' because that's what they do, it's what they're there for. But... they only know what they know, which is how things have always been. There's nothing else there (yet) for them to latch 'into'.


What? - Why isn't there? Because of how you, (and your brain!), see and understand the world. That unique bonding was created between you and your loved one, strengthened and reinforced by being shared, constructed and lived between you. The countless numbers of experiences and closeness: the accumulation of all the time spent together.


It's hard to over-estimate the subtlety, intricacy and depth of this influence on you and how you experience your world. It helps provide what the world is like for you. And who you experience yourself to be. As far as your brain is concerned, this is how the world is.


 

This means that for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time

The Grieving Brain


 

This is from Dr Mary-Frances O'Connor, 'The Grieving Brain. The Surprising Science about how we learn from Love and Loss'.


This is a fascinating and, to me, deeply compassionate account of the neuroscientific research findings. What it also tells us is that our feelings are not insubstantial things that we should, or even could, learn to 'master'. Instead they are real, traceable consequences on our physiology that go deep. What we're feeling is a reliable indicator of what is there. Bereaved and grieving, we are facing having to re-learn our world. All at a time when our resources are stretched very thin: after all, our world has split apart. It reinforces the imperative and need we all have to receive kindness, connection and compassion when we're grieving.





2. Continuing Bonds


When bereaved, you've lost your loved one. Of course you have, that's now a big part of your reality. And yet, the preceding section shows that there's more to it. The deep pain you are experiencing is in that strange gap between what you know has happened and how you've previously learned and still believe the world to be.


A sense of continuing to have your loved one with you is part of this. It's experienced so deeply and so frequently. Yet it's sometimes doubted as 'just in my imagination'. It isn't. Their imprint is indeed still in you, it's part of you.


It's not just that it's good to know about how deep your bonds go: it's significant because it's part of what you've become, what you're becoming and what you will take forward.


 

Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future  

(The Grieving Brain)


 





3. Grieving doesn't follow a 'straight line': You're not doing it wrong


Bereavement and grief are not something that we talk about much, or feel able to. So when it happens to us, we're left to, somehow, get through it. That it feels so massive and yet there's no roadmap feels wrong: there must be a way of getting through it - some hidden 'way' that we 'should' know.


Meanwhile, we swing between feeling consumed by it or, in contrast, desperately trying to distract ourselves to escape it.


So it might be surprising to hear that these 'swings' are not wrong, or evidence of being stuck or 'in denial'. Sometimes all you can think about is your loss: this is part of coping with grief. At others, not so much; life pulls you away, or you feel a need to seek some restoration in your life; this is also part of coping with grief.



Something like this perhaps:-



Many people find this an honest and reassuring model to keep in mind for themselves. It offers hope by describing, very broadly, how it really is and how we really 'do it' - (we're already doing it, even when it doesn't feel like it).


So, sometimes you will be deep in your loss. Allow yourself to do this.


At others, you will be pulled into restoring life for yourself. Or you will want to do this. Allow this too. Both are part of coping with grief.





4. Growing Around Grief


In the beginning, grief feels like it takes up all your life, they're the same size:


Adapted from Lois Tonkin: Growing Around Grief



Obviously, neither our life nor our grief are neat circles! But this is a simple and clear way to help in understanding how grief goes over time. I really like it for that reason and many people resonate with it too.


But I think there's something else it underlines about how grief is generally approached in day-to-day life. We often feel we have to 'manage' our grief: if we can just 'hang in' until it gets smaller, we'll be stronger. Not just for our own sake, but for those around us (we think).



How can you make the size of your grief for a loved person 'smaller'? What if you don't want to? Should you want to?


Well, no, not if you don't want to.


It's not that your grief should get smaller, but that your life will begin to grow around it. This is just how it happens, how life goes, how your life goes. Ordinary day-to-day living, new experiences, new connections with new people: unlimited potential that it's not possible to see, or perhaps even believe in, when you're newly bereaved.







These 4 ways of thinking about grief, individually and together, provide a very broad picture of a normal grieving process.


Normal? I'm acutely aware that there's little that feels 'normal' about grief when you're in it. So I have to add that 'normal' here does not mean its impact is anything less than devastating. Simply that 'devastating' is an accurate way of putting it, it's how it is. Quite often, it's really validating for people to know this. That what they're doing is 'right' based on how it is for them; these 4 ways of thinking about grief support that.


This last point is important. What they don't, and can't, describe is specifically what it's like for you from within what you're experiencing in your life.



I do know that I need to acknowledge that often it feels really, really hard, impossible perhaps.


Looking at the Loss/Restoration process for example, maybe what is shown there of a 'natural' movement' currently feels as possible to you as flying to the moon? Perhaps for you it's all one-sided? There might be something in you that just can't, or won't, leave that place: you need to stay where you are. Anything else feels undo-able, wrong or unsafe?


Remember, your way is right for you. This means you can trust how it is for you and you can also trust that your feelings of 'can't' or 'won't' are there for a reason. You haven't yet been ready. Or maybe there's something about the death, or your relationship with that person, yet to be acknowledged, explored, possibly even resolved if that's important.




Something else that's really worth considering and that comes up a lot for people I know and people I work with, is that sometimes the things recommended for us to do to help ourselves just don't feel right for us. Perhaps it feels like they're not really meant or written for us? They sort of 'miss' who we are. Connections and new experiences are vital for us all, but not everyone finds this a naturally easy thing to do, or to want, for themselves. Or has a clear idea of what this would look like for them? The advice for grieving, as for life, is usually geared towards finding balance, but what would this look like for you? What ways can you find? What's important to you?


This is so important: to mean anything to us, it has to be our way.



Photo by Gilly Stewart on Unsplash



There is help, and hope


So, if it feels to you as though you're struggling, feeling stuck or overwhelmed, be reassured there's a reason why. There's nothing wrong with you.


It also needs acknowledging that, often, it isn't easy to find help on your own.


Counselling for bereavement, grief, loss and the change it brings, is here for you, to work with you to find your own unique way through. In therapy, you're no longer alone with your grief and how you feel. You have the space to explore what this loss means for you and your life. To find new ways of reconnecting with yourself and your world and the world around you. To begin to 'grow' your world. Without feeling you should leave your loved one behind in order to do this. It helps you find your way. And what hope means, what it is and looks like, for you.



If this speaks to you, or sounds good to you, please do contact me using the buttons below. Email or leave a message and I'll be in touch with you within 24 working hours.







Note: Dr Mary-Frances O'Connor, 'The Grieving Brain, The Surprising Science of How we Learn from Love and Loss", (2022), is published by HarperCollins https://maryfrancesoconnor.org/book


Further reading/video around 'Continuing Bonds', 'The Dual Process Model of Grieving' and 'Growing Around Grief' are widely available online.


28 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page