The Traumatic Loss of a Loved One Is Like Experiencing a Brain Injury

Maria J. Danford

This story appeared in the September/October 2020 of Discover magazine as “The Mourning Mind” We hope you’ll subscribe to Discover and help guidance science journalism at a time when it’s desired the most.  It was a crisp night time in June, the sky shiny from the light-weight of the total moon. I […]

This story appeared in the September/October 2020 of Discover magazine as “The Mourning Mind” We hope you’ll subscribe to Discover and help guidance science journalism at a time when it’s desired the most. 


It was a crisp night time in June, the sky shiny from the light-weight of the total moon. I stopped at a gasoline station to gasoline up before heading to the hospital to see my father. A few months following coronary heart surgical procedures, his recently changed valve experienced started driving germs into his mind, causing a number of strokes. He was dying.

Standing at the pump, I thought about how he would in no way take a look at our new home. How we would in no way dance alongside one another once again. I paid for my gasoline, obtained back in the car or truck and drove out of the gasoline station — with the nozzle however lodged in my tank.

When I stopped the car or truck, an onlooker who experienced watched the nozzle fly out of my car’s gasoline tank reported smugly, “You’re fortunate it snapped off.”

I was humiliated, ashamed and, most of all, in despair — not just due to the fact my dad was dying, but also due to the fact I was losing my thoughts. But I know now I was not alone: Commonly, people who have skilled grief can remember incidents in which their brains seemed to end working.

“The challenge isn’t sorrow it’s a fog of confusion, disorientation and delusions of magical contemplating,” writes Lisa Shulman, a neurologist at the College of Maryland School of Medication, in a website put up for Johns Hopkins College Press about her e-book Right before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Standpoint on Loss, Grief and Our Mind. “The emotional trauma of decline final results in really serious variations in mind perform that endure.”

Experts are ever more viewing the knowledge of traumatic decline as a form of mind injury. The mind rewires by itself — a course of action identified as neuroplasticity — in reaction to emotional trauma, which has profound results on the mind, thoughts and physique. In her e-book, Shulman, whose partner died of an aggressive cancer, describes experience like she was waking up in an unfamiliar environment where all the regulations were being scrambled. On various situations in the months following her husband’s death, she misplaced keep track of of time. Once, following working an errand, she drove to an unfamiliar spot and finished up uncertain of where she was or how she obtained there. She pulled off the highway and experienced to use her GPS to navigate back home.

If these issues can take place to a neurologist who understands mind biochemistry, what hope was there for me?

The Grieving Mind

After a decline, the physique releases hormones and chemical substances reminiscent of a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. Every day, reminders of the decline induce this pressure reaction and ultimately transform the brain’s circuitry. The pathways you relied on for most of your daily life just take some substantial, but mostly momentary, detours and the mind shifts upside down, prioritizing the most primitive features. The prefrontal cortex, the locus of decision-generating and management, takes a backseat, and the limbic program, where our survival instincts operate, drives the car or truck.

Sadness Grief Depression - Shutterstock

(Credit: Tartila/Shutterstock)

In an endeavor to take care of overpowering views and thoughts while preserving perform, the mind acts as a tremendous-filter to continue to keep recollections and thoughts in a tolerable zone or obliterate them altogether. In accordance to a 2019 examine posted in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, grievers reduce consciousness of views linked to their decline. The outcome: heightened anxiousness and an inability to consider straight.

As I watched my dad remodel from a outstanding mathematician who could calculate elaborate algorithms in his head into a childlike dependent browsing for terms he couldn’t discover, I commenced to really feel like I was the one recovering from a stroke. I fumbled to discover terms for typical objects like lemon or cantaloupe. There were being times when I blanked on my husband’s mobile phone selection and even my have.

In accordance to Helen Marlo, professor of medical psychology at Notre Dame de Namur College in California, that is not uncommon. Men and women who are grieving may well get rid of their keys various times a day, forget about who they are contacting mid-dial and struggle to keep in mind good friends’ names.

Analysis shows these cognitive results are additional pronounced among persons who have complicated grief, a problem that strikes about ten percent of bereaved persons and is marked by an extreme yearning for the deceased. Men and women with complicated grief skilled greater cognitive decline more than a 7-yr examine period when compared with people with a a lot less complicated grief reaction, according to a 2018 examine posted in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

As Marlo points out it, our brains have trouble processing the motives for the death of a cherished one, even generating up explanations for it. This can direct us down a rabbit hole of “what ifs” and “if onlys,” significantly if we’re caught in our grief. Only more than time, and with intention, can grief deliver fertile soil for advancement and transformation.

The Grieving Mind

My dad usually seemed to me pretty much superhuman — all go, no give up — and was at his greatest when he was generating persons giggle. He cherished pulling a good prank, even dressing up as a waiter at my wedding day rehearsal meal. Virtually 20 minutes passed before it dawned on me that the odd server providing wine and appetizers was essentially my father. He lavished his grandchildren with tickles, belly kisses and seriously undesirable renditions of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It By means of the Grapevine.”

Analysis suggests our knowledge of decline — whether muted or traumatic — is mediated by associations, and the daily life of people associations resides in the thoughts. “Each of us responds to grief in different ways, and that reaction is pushed by the relational styles that we lay down early in daily life, as nicely as the intensity of the grief,” states Marlo. “So even nevertheless areas of the mind could possibly be firing and wiring the same way following decline, the way the thoughts reacts — the ‘feeling’ knowledge of grief — is special to the person.”

Mourning mind (2)

(Credit: Shoplaywood/Shutterstock)

What I hadn’t entirely grasped in the early days of my grieving is that the mind and the thoughts, while inextricably linked, are entirely independent entities. Like the sections of a car or truck engine, the two feed off of each individual other. That’s why my amygdala (aspect of the primitive limbic program) appears an alarm when I see a grandfather taking part in with his grandchildren at the park. It is due to the fact the mind triggers a pressure reaction attached to my thoughts of decline.

“Grieving is a protective course of action. It is an evolutionary adaptation to help us survive in the deal with of emotional trauma,” Shulman writes in her e-book. The way grief manifests — from despair to hopelessness, from dissociative signs to emotional pain — is just proof of altered mind perform. So how do you recover an emotionally traumatized mind? “You have to embrace the variations that are happening in the mind as an alternative of contemplating you’re losing your thoughts,” states Marlo.

Getting a Way Ahead

As with any injury, an emotionally traumatized thoughts necessitates a period of recovery and rehabilitation. We don’t return to our common actions instantly following coronary heart surgical procedures, still somehow we anticipate to bounce back following the thoughts scramble of losing a cherished one.
“With grief, the mediator amongst the correct and left hemispheres of the mind — the contemplating and experience sections — is impaired,” points out Marlo. “The endeavor is to combine both, so you’re not drowning in the thoughts without having thought as a mediator or silencing thoughts in favor of rational contemplating.”

Analysis suggests that you can really encourage the integration of the correct and left hemispheres with actions from medication to psychotherapy to therapeutic massage. A 2019 examine of 23 bereaved persons posted in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience uncovered that taking part in an eight-week mindfulness-primarily based cognitive remedy enhanced the skill to execute elaborate mental processes, these kinds of as functioning memory and the skill to control impulses. Other scientific studies propose that common cognitive behavioral remedy — which trains the mind to modify thought styles — assists foster individual advancement among persons who are grieving.

“Neuroplasticity moves in both directions, altering in reaction to traumatic decline, and then altering once again in reaction to restorative knowledge,” Shulman writes in her e-book. One particular way to recover is to mirror on the romance with the deceased and perform to hold both the like and the pain.

For some, that indicates wrapping themselves in a beloved T-shirt or quilt, visiting the cemetery, journaling about positive recollections or producing a photo e-book or video clip of daily life with their cherished one. For me, it intended stalking hummingbirds in my backyard my dad cherished to watch their tireless pursuit of happiness. In that respect, the birds were being just like my dad. When they flutter close to me, I can pretty much perception his presence.

“Connecting the decline with behaviors and actions assists the grieving mind combine views and thoughts,” states Marlo. “So if your hummingbird-searching for behaviors elicit really feel-good thoughts, that can set your grieving thoughts on a route toward healing.”


Amy Paturel is a freelance journalist, essayist and writing coach who writes about wellbeing, science and associations. She life in Murrieta, California, with her partner and three young children. Take a look at her at amypaturel.com.

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