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What does the brain do during grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss that can affect all aspects of your life. When you lose someone or something important to you, your brain goes through a complex process as you adjust to the change. Understanding what’s happening in your brain can help you cope with difficult emotions and take better care of yourself during grief.

The Initial Shock Phase

When you first find out about a major loss, it’s common to feel stunned, numb, or in denial. Your brain is trying to protect you from being completely overwhelmed. This gives you time to start processing the news before the intense emotions hit. The initial shock phase can last a few hours or a few weeks.

Frantic Searching

As the reality of the loss starts to sink in, your brain moves into a phase of frantic searching and activity. You may obsessively think about your loved one, desperately search for ways to undo the loss, or try to stay busy so you don’t have to face the pain. This is your brain’s way of attempting to restore the lost connection. Recognizing when you’re frantically searching can prevent you from making impulsive decisions.

Intense Emotions

Allowing yourself to feel the strong emotions of grief is vital for your brain to accept the reality of the loss over time. Expect intense sorrow, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, and shock to come in unpredictable waves. Don’t judge yourself for having irrational thoughts and behaviors. Emotional flooding won’t last forever as your brain chemistry starts to settle.

Preoccupation and Distraction

Your grieving brain will go back and forth between feeling overwhelmed by emotions and desperately trying to distract from them. You may think about little else but your grief, or you might struggle to concentrate on anything at all. It’s very common to get lost in nostalgic memories. Your brain is trying to find a new equilibrium between focusing inward on the loss and outward toward recovery.

Diminished Self-Care

The emotional toll of grief leaves you with reduced energy for taking care of yourself physically. You may experience significant sleep disturbances, alterations in appetite, decreased immunity, and lack of interest in socializing or activities you used to enjoy. Your brain is using its main resources to process trauma, leaving less bandwidth for things like hygiene, healthy eating, and exercise. Prioritizing self-care aids your recovery.

Brain Function Changes

Research shows that grief strongly impacts regions of the brain involved in emotion processing, memory, decision-making, and impulse control. As a result, you may experience impaired concentration and memory, reduced organization and planning skills, and difficulty making even small decisions. Identity confusion, intrusive thoughts, dreams of the deceased, and sensing their presence are also common. Your brain is recalibrating all of its connections to the loss.

Moments of Normalcy

During the long grieving process, you’ll have moments where your brain gives you a break, and you feel more like your usual self. Enjoy these moments of lightness and normalcy when they come. Staying open to small sources of beauty, humor, and gratitude will help counterbalance the intense sorrow and promote healing.

Reawakening and Reorganization

As your brain adapts to the loss over time, the intense emotions and confusion will start to subside. You’ll begin reengaging with the outside world, forming new routines, pursuing new interests, and even feeling moments of happiness again. Your brain is forming new neural pathways that don’t involve the deceased. Accept this reawakening and reorganization as a necessary part of grieving.

Integrating the Loss

The final phase of grieving involves your brain integrating the loss experience into the story of your life in a way that allows you to move forward. You’ll develop a new sense of identity and purpose as someone who has endured loss. Cherishing the deceased’s memory and meaning to you is part of this integration. Your brain will always hold the imprint of the loss, but with integration you’ll adapt to a changed world.

Getting Extra Support

If your brain remains excessively preoccupied with the deceased, you’re unable to function, or you have persistent thoughts of suicide, it’s critical to get professional help. Therapists can aid your grieving brain through techniques like EMDR, cognitive restructuring, social support, and medication if appropriate. You don’t have to navigate grief alone when your brain needs extra support.

Trust the Process

The path through grief is a winding one, unique to each person and relationship. By understanding your brain’s grief response, you can better care for yourself through the changes. Trust that the chaos and intensity are normal for a time. Support your brain with rest, healthy habits, social connection, and self-compassion. You and your resilient brain can get through this.