The complicated journey of grief

Dealing with grief is overwhelming.

As you try to come to terms with your grief it can feel so hard to do. Being able to verbalise what you are feeling and experiencing can be so difficult to accomplish that many people never process their grief to that depth.

Grief is complex, overwhelming and unsettling.

The 5 stages of death belief

Back in the 70s it was thought that grief was processed in a straight line. There was a five stage process that you went through in that order. According to this theory you were supposed to experience the stages of:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Later an extra stage was added:

  1. Meaning

This was a theory formed to describe the process of dying, not the process of grief.

So much harm was done to people who weren’t grieving according to the rigid stages structure. Even today, there are those who adhere to this long defunct theory.

The effects of grief are more complex than a simple linear theory.

The tasks of grieving

There have been many theories of death proposed since then. In many of the theories it was suggested there were “tasks” to be completed during the grieving process.

One of the most popular theories gives four tasks:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss
  2. Process the pain of grief
  3. Adjust to a world without the one you lost
  4. Find an enduring connection with the person in the midst of embarking on a new life.

The tasks in themselves aren’t wrong. But a rigid adherence to them is not helpful when you are grieving.

Oscillating between grief and life

More recently the Dual Process Model has become popular. In this theory you oscillate between loss oriented mode and restoration oriented mode. This model has great validity. You need to keep living so you do have to live in the real world and there are tasks of living you still need to do. Additionally you need to learn how to live in the world without the one you love. You also need to process the loss so you need to spend time and allow yourself to experience and accept the emotional pain of your loss.

But there is more to understanding grief than oscillating from loss and restoration.

Multidimensional Grief Theory

In 2023 a paper was released describing Multidimensional Grief Theory (MGT). This theory relates to children aged 7-18 who are grieving. According to the theory there are three dimensions of grief. They are:

• Separation Distress

• Existential/identity distress

• Circumstance-related distress

Although this is aimed at children, my reading of the theory is that it can be applied to adults as well.

Separation Distress

Separation distress is not just an emotional reaction. It also involves areas of the brain where attachments to other people form. When someone close dies, there is a time of that area of the brain removing and altering neural networks connected to that person.

The big issue with separation distress is finding a way to feel connected to the person you are grieving for, even when they are gone.

Existential and Identity exploration

Every time you lose a loved one, there is a period of redefining yourself. This happens because every person you are connected to helps you define who you are. When one person dies, especially if they were very important in your life, you have to redefine who you are.

Every loss is a challenge existentially. I have found this is greater when it is the first time you have encountered the death of someone you know.

The way they died

The last dimension of grief relates to the circumstances of that person’s death. How do you think and feel about the way they died? How do you learn to accept that?

These three dimensions of grief have a major impact on how well you process grief and incorporate it into your life.

The importance of understanding what is happening to you

You may wonder why I am giving you all this information.

It is important you understand what is happening to you. When people talk about you being in denial or anger you can understand this is an outmoded theory on dying that was misapplied to grief.

If someone talks to you about tasks you must complete you can understand what they are referring to.

You are more likely to hear about the dual process model if you visit me and I will explain how you sometimes are overwhelmed by grief and other times focused on daily tasks and learning to live after your loss.

As for MGT, I am also likely to discuss with you the impact on your brain of the separation from the one you love. I will also at some stage explore the existential and identity aspects of your loss. You may also want to talk about how your loved one died so I will most likely explore your perception of that with you.

To Summarise

Grief is a complicated journey. There is a lot to process and a lot of physical changes in your brain to be completed. You need to learn how to live in the world now they are gone. You need to learn who you are. You also need to process your feelings around the manner of their death. Sometimes you will want to talk, other times cry, and maybe other times process your feelings through expressive activities such as poetry, painting, sandplay, or journalling.

This journey takes time, so don’t rush it. Be okay for it to take as long as it needs to.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your grief journey, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

What is my brain doing when I grieve?

In my last blog I shared the range of experiences people report in the aftermath of bereavement.

Today I want to share about what is happening in the brain in grief.

Before I do that, it is important to acknowledge that grief is not just about the death of someone close to you. It is also about losing a body part, losing freedom, losing a job, losing good health, losing a relationship, moving house, moving to a new area/country and so on.

What is the brain doing in grief?

In the immediate aftermath of your loss, your brain perceives the distress you are experiencing as a threat to your survival and springs into defence mode. You are suddenly in a highly activated stress state. The state where you body switches into fight or flight mode. This is why many people in the early stages of grief are unable to sit still but instead need to pace backwards and forwards, or even run away.

Other symptoms of this defence mode include:

• an inability to sleep,

• being unable to think clearly or make decisions,

• total loss of appetite,

• Being numb or feeling things are unreal,

• Being hypervigilant to reminders of your loss,

• Dizziness, trembling, racing heartbeat, gastro-intestinal upset,

• Difficulty concentrating,

• Forgetting things,

• Finding it difficult to regulate your feelings.

Long term brain work

After the acute grief period your defence systems in your brain will settle down. But you will still experience many of the same symptoms. So what is happening?

Learning is what is happening.

Any change in circumstances results in changes in the brain. The brain has to develop new neural pathways and close down others. This is how learning shows up in the brain.

The brain’s internal map

I have heard it likened to walking through your house at night. Most people can navigate around the house fairly well in dim light. Your brain has an internal map of the layout of the space so that you avoid bumping into things.

In this map, your brain will alert you to what is there.

Have you ever experienced walking into a space and noticing something is not there? Then you wonder how long it has been missing because you can’t actually remember when you last saw it. The chances are this item has just gone missing. When things are familiar you tend not to notice them. But when they are not there you suddenly notice.

When items are missing from the brain’s map

This is very similar to what your brain does with people in your life. You are used to seeing certain people and don’t even have to think about them being there, because they always are. Every time you see them, your brain releases a feel good chemical, oxytocin. But if they are not there, then you notice their absence and you no longer get the oxytocin dose.

Some of the difficulty in grief is that you brain keeps noticing the one you love is not there. And it hurts.

Your brain relates to the people in your life

Your brain will change the way you relate to the person who is dead. This is learning. Your brain can create new pathways to hold the memory of the person you love, to remember their absence, and to feel the grief at their departure from your life.

While you are grieving, your brain is learning. It is learning how to transform the relationship you have with the one you have lost so that they are not in your life anymore but the love you have for them, and your memories of them, still exist.

Why does it take so long? Why is it so hard to accept the reality of the person being out of your life?

New neural pathways take time to grow. And there is a lot of growth needed to transform your memory of the person who is gone from present reality to a memory.

The neural connection with the people you love

You form neural pathways that link you to the person you love. The bond you have carries with it the understanding that you will both be there for each other. Now your brain has to unlearn that. But you still have that attachment pathway to their memory. And the pathway for memory needs to be unlinked from the pathways for the present.

While those neural pathways are changing you still have the sense the person you love is there and your brain keeps trying to connect to them. Then it is devastating when you remember they are gone.

Grieving requires you to resolve this conflict between your attachment to someone who is here and the memory of them when they are no longer here.

Epigenetic changes happen in brain when people bond. Oxytocin is released around those bonds. When the bond is broken the brain has to adapt to the loss of oxytocin..

Your brain understanding they are gone

Attachment bonds are specific to each person you bond with. It is hard to learn they are gone but usually the brain is good at learning. You learn to accept the loss of the person. Your brain can learn that they will not be there.

Continuing bonds

You may have heard the term continuing bonds. This refers to the bond you will always have with the person who is dead. They may not physically be present, but you will find you are still in communication with them. It is very common for human beings to do this.

Continuing bonds allow you to connect to other loved ones and make new friends.

The benefits of what your brain is doing

Your brain can help you through the experience of grief so that you can understand what life is like now and find ways to reconnect and create meaningful activity in your life.

Grief is a form of learning so it doesn’t matter how long it takes. You will continue to learn.

Keep talking about your loved one. Keep sharing your experiences. Find your tribe who will be willing to listen. Be patient. Be okay to not always be happy. Be okay to sometimes feel sad. Be okay to grieve forever.

If you need to talk to someone and can’t find a group, then counselling can help.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz