Grief and loss

Lesson objective:

We discuss in this lesson the definition of grief and the contribution of loss to the feeling of grief. Certain types of loss can cause grief such as losing a beloved person, a friend, or a home. How do we accept loss and move forward?

We have discussed the different processes and biological systems that influence our responses to the world around us, including to stress, to trauma, and to pain. 

Most of the mechanisms we have discussed are also involved in the experience of grief, which is a deep sorrow usually caused by death or loss. 

Grief is a natural and universal emotion and may occur on its own, or may occur in addition to trauma.

It’s not just us humans that grief. Many animals grieve. Elephants, in particular, have elaborate grief rituals. They mourn their dead and ritually return to sites where loved ones died.  

Grief rituals are important steps in feeling grief and moving past grief. No amount of time will reduce or diminish the memory of a loved one. But there are stages to grief, culminating in the acceptance of loss while always carrying the person in your heart and memory. 

Humans conduct rituals after someone dies as a way to collectively and publicly mourn the death, as well as to celebrate the life of the person. 

Rituals like washing, burial, cremation, ritual prayer, and others that are conducted after someone dies help provide a sense of closure. 

We mentioned before that the predictive brain craves closure. Trauma is particularly disruptive because it provides no closure, it provides no meaning. The intrusive thoughts associated with trauma are, in part, the brain’s way of finding closure, of making sense of what has happened, of thinking it over from all possible angles. 

The brain likes to fill gaps in information, to close cycles that are left open, and this grief offers an important context in which we try to create closure. 

There are many types of losses that can lead to grief, including the loss of a relative, friend, home, or country. The loss of non-human things is not the same as losing a person. Nonetheless, the permanent loss of anything meaningful can affect you to your core. Indeed, the loss of home can feel as painful as the loss of a loved one. 

Indeed, the loss of home can feel as painful as the loss of a loved one. 

“Home” is a pillar of identity. 

“Home” is usually a place of safety. 

Our loved ones are also pillars of our identity. 

Our loved ones are also usually sources of safety and comfort. 

Home is a complex and abstract concept, usually linked to feelings of safety and security.

Home consists of certain people walking in and out of the front door, the familiarity of hallways passed over generations, the sounds and smells of the neighborhood just outside. Home is a safe place, a sanctuary, a retreat during troubling times. Home is the place where identities are often formed, a place where culture and language and tradition are introduced and nurtured.

To lose a home is to lose more than just a building structure. It is the loss of a cornerstone of identity. The emotional attachment humans have to their loved ones, and the grief that comes from the loss of that relationship, is similar to the grief that stems from the loss of other objects, places and experiences to which we have emotional attachments.

For this reason, the loss of home and the loss of people may be felt similarly.

We previously discussed how the brain makes emotional associations between sensory inputs and feeling states. Generally, when someone or something dies, they may “live on” in your dreams, in photo frames, and in mobile phones.

Some people find comfort in constantly seeing images of those they have lost; for others, such reminders prolong and deepen discomfort and pain, hindering them from moving forward, or causing them intense flashbacks. 

Some people cry while they grieve. Others grieve silently. Throughout different experiences of conflict, loss, and death, people share many traits and tendencies, but they expressed their internal states uniquely.

While the expression of grief varies from person to person, internally, grief manifests itself in certain specific neural and biological experiences. So stay tuned.