Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, and grieving necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world… For the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time.”

Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief,” Emily Dickinson wrote as she calibrated love and loss. But she did not mean that it is good to ruminate and wallow — Dickinson so deftly played with the surface of meaning, so delighted in startling us into a flinch or furrow before plunging us into the deeper truths she fathomed. She meant, I think, that a love lost is grieved forever, whatever the nature of the loss — this she knew, and turned the ongoingness of it into a lifetime of art — but by looking back, we are reminded over and over that the sharp edge of grief does smooth over time, that today’s blunt ache is worlds apart from the first stabs, until grief becomes, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his stirring letter of consolation to a bereaved young woman, “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

A loss of a loved one is a terrible thing. People never die, at least not in the real sense. I don’t mean this in some mystical sense — let there be no confusion about what actually happens when we die. I don’t even mean it in the poetic sense. I am speaking strictly from the point of view of the mind emerging from the dazzling materiality of the brain — that majestic cathedral of cortex and synapse shaping every thought we have and every feeling we tremble with.

The paradox within the brain is what I’m referring to

On the one hand, we lose people all the time — to death, to distance, to differences; from the brain’s point of view, these varieties of loss differ not by kind but only by degree, triggering the same neural circuitry, producing sorrow along a spectrum of intensity shaped by the level of closeness and the finality of the loss.

But, we never know the end of a person that we loved. When they die or vanish, they are physically no longer present, but their personhood permeates our synapses with memories and habits of mind, saturates an all-pervading atmosphere of feeling we don’t just carry with us all the time but live and breathe inside. Or the opposite happens, which is its own devastation — the physical body remains present, but the person we have known and loved, that safehouse of shared memories and trust, is gone — lost to mental illness, to addiction, to neurodegenerative disease.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

Both cases involve the brain being tasked to rebuild the map of the globe. This is done slowly and painfully, in order that it can make sense of the world again, without its beloved. Mapping, in fact, is not a mere metaphor but what is actually going on in the brain, since our orientation in spacetime and our autonoeic consciousness — the capacity for mental self-representation — share a cortical region.

How the remapping unfolds and where the missing and missed person is located on the map are some of the many questions that The Grieving Brain: How we Learn From Love and Loss (public Library) contains by neuroscientist. Mary-Frances O’Connor — a pioneer in fMRI research since the technology first became available, who has devoted a quarter century to studying the particular neurophysiology of grief. Her writings include:

Your brain dedicates much effort to finding loved ones, while you are still alive. This is so you can get them back when you need them. It is often more interested in making predictions than learning new information. However, it is unable to absorb new information such as missing a loved-one.


The brain can’t solve grief because it is so difficult. To grieve, you must learn to accept the loss of someone you care deeply about and who has deep roots in your worldview. The brain perceives that your lost loved one is both gone and everlasting. This makes it seem like you’re simultaneously living in two worlds. Even though they are gone, you still manage to navigate your life. This is confusing as well as upsetting.

Making an important distinction between grief (“the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored”) and grieving (an ongoing process punctuated by recurring moments of grief but stringing the moments into a larger trajectory), O’Connor adds:

It is difficult to grieve. We must let go of the road map that we had used to help us navigate our lives and change our relationship with our loved one who has just died. Learning to grieve, or live a fulfilling life, without our loved ones, is a form of learning. Learning is something that we all do throughout our lives. Seeing grieving as learning can make it easier to understand and allow us to be patient with this amazing process.


Grief is an inevitable response to loss. Forever, you will feel pangs and grief for this person. There will be moments when your grief overwhelms you. This can happen even after the person’s death. But… even if the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes. It is possible to feel grief for years following a loss, and not be able to see how you’ve adapted. If you think of the emotion and the process of adaptation as two different things, however, then it isn’t a problem that you experience grief even when you have been grieving for a long time.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. This clock is available as both a wall and print version.

Although volumes have been written about the psychology, philosophy, and poetics of grief — none more piercing than the Joan Didion classic, none more practical than Seneca’s advice to his bereaved mother — there is something singularly revealing about exploring grief from the point of view of the brain beneath the mind, which must begin at the developmental beginning. Childhood — the brain’s most fertile growth period, when most of its major infrastructure is laid out — is also our training ground for loss. We experience loss scale-models every time we’re separated from primary caregivers. Whenever they return, it is not the loss of their loved ones, but of their individuality. It is worth observing that every abandoned person can experience a small amount of grief.

We also learn about the roles we play as part of these formative attachments. Because, in building its relational world-map, the brain is constantly computing our loved ones’ position in three dimensions — time, space, and closeness, also known as psychological distance — we learn the causal link between our behavior and a caregiver’s position in the closeness dimension, just like we learn the causal link between our bodily movements and our position in space. The child will learn that there is an underlying secure attachment even in the face of all kinds of situational and emotional factors. O’Connor writes:

Our ability to keep closeness in check is only part of the equation. We learn how to sustain and nourish this closeness. Yet, we can also trust those we love to continue that closeness.

The obvious — and heartbreaking — corollary is that children who grow up without secure attachment experience the pangs of miniature grief much more readily throughout life, with each departure of a loved one, however temporary, because trusting a continuity of closeness does not come naturally to us. But no matter the formative experience of closeness, human beings are universally undone by the death of someone close — the final abandonment, at once the most abstract and the most absolute absence, in which our brains simply cannot compute the total removal of a person so proximate and important from the fabric of psychological spacetime.

It will all vanishMaria Popova Available as a printed version.

Citing the disoriented devastation of a woman ghosted by a lover, O’Connor notes that “ghosting” is the neurologically appropriate word-choice for such abandonments — studied under fMRI, the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to “ghosting” behaves much the same way as the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to death, the mental map suddenly crumbled and torn to pieces. O’Connor describes the strange yet strangely sensical way in which the brain copes with this incomprehensible disruption of reality:

Your brain can’t comprehend the meaning of death if it is not able to understand how they got there. Here, NowAnd Near. From your brain’s perspective, ghosting is exactly what happens when a loved one dies. According to the brain, it is not death. The loved one has, with no explanation, stopped returning our calls — stopped communicating with us altogether. What could possibly be the cause of someone so close to us doing this? Their behavior has become distant and unimaginably cruel, which is distressing. Your brain doesn’t understand why; it doesn’t understand that dimensions can simply disappear. If they don’t feel close, then they just feel distant, and you want to fix it rather than believe they are permanently gone. This misbelief can lead to intense feelings of upwelling.


Our brain will assume that a loved one is absent and they will soon be found. This is the idea that the individual has disappeared from this dimension and that they are not here anymore. Here, NowAnd NearIt is impossible to measure dimensions.

Based on brain imaging studies she says:

Our brains contain the physical and tangible hardware that allows us to feel a temporary sense of connection with loved ones.

The particular bit of hardware is the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex — our built-in GPS of love. By constantly scanning the surroundings and processing tons of sensory information, our brain’s posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) is calibrating and refitting the distance between ourselves and those we love. We feel closer, but the PCC loosens that bond when it senses distancing. When the world ends, the GPS is no more than a crude navigation device trying to find its true direction. O’Connor writes:

The incoming messages can seem jumbled after the loss of a close friend or family member. Sometimes, the closeness to our loved ones feels so tangible that it is almost as if they were present right now. At other times, the string seems to have fallen off the board — not shorter or longer than it was before, but simply stolen from us entirely.

Liminal WorldsMaria Popova Available as a printed version.

This confusion is so fundamental and so primal, so beyond the reach of reason, that it befalls minds indiscriminately along the spectrum of intelligence and self-awareness — a reality most clearly and devastatingly evinced in the extraordinary love letter Richard Feynman wrote to his wife 488 days after her death and 6,994 days before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

But O’Connor notes that while Western physicians long believed such continuing bonds across the life-death divide to be a symptom of poor coping with grief that makes for poorer bonds with the living, recent research drawing on various grief rituals and customs from cultures around the world has demonstrated that such ongoing inner dialogue with the dead might actually enrich our relationships with the living and allow us to show up for them in a fuller, more openhearted way. She writes:

As we learn wisdom from experience, our understanding of ourselves shifts. As we get older, our relationships with loved ones may become more loving and compassionate. It is possible to allow the relationships we have with loved ones that are no longer here to change and grow, even though it may only be in our heads. The transformation in our relationships with them may affect our ability to live fully now and set goals for the future. It can also help us to feel more connected to them, to the best parts of them… Their absence from our physical world does not make our relationship to them any less valuable.


Instead of trying to imagine an alternative, Imagine what it would look likeWe must be able to connect with them and keep our feet on the ground in this moment. As any relationship between two people is always changing, this transformed one can be dynamic. The relationship we share with our loved ones must be reflective of who we are today, with all the knowledge and wisdom we’ve gained from grieving. Rebuilding a life that is meaningful requires us to do so.

The greatest challenge, of course, is the perennial challenge of the human mind — how to integrate seemingly contradictory needs or ideas in such a way that they coexist harmoniously, perhaps even magnify each other, rather than cancel each other out. A new relationship that is not integrated can be a danger to the ongoing internal bond with the dead. This will result in a tsunami of grief over the concept of emotional erasure. It’s grief for the actual grief, and for those who hold on to it. This fear is so easily understood that it borders on the universal. It is also — and this might be the most assuring part of O’Connor’s research — a neurophysiologically misplaced fear. Every person that we love creates a structural imprint in our brains. This is encoded into synapses and cannot be replaced or vanquished. Because that bond — like every bond, like every idea, like the universe itself — was “only ever conjured up in the mind,” it is there too that it always lives, unassailable by other minds and other events.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

O’Connor writes:

It is not possible to fix the existing hole by starting a relationship. Here is the key — the point of new roles and new relationships is not to fill the hole. They won’t, so don’t expect disappointment.

If we want to live in the future, then we have to be able to trust and love someone. To have a happy and fulfilling future relationship, you must start one now. When we see a future that we are loved and happy, we have to create a loving relationship.

Understood this way, then, the ongoing relationship with the gone is a lavishment to other loves, for it has made us exactly who we are — the person doing the loving, the person being loved, the mapmaker of present and possible worlds. O’Connor offers neural affirmation for this poetic aspiration:

The physical reality is that loved ones die, and they no longer exist with us. Each day we see this. They are still with us, however, in our brains and minds. The physical makeup of our brain — the structure of our neurons — has been changed by them. You could also say that part of them lives on physically. That piece is the neural connections protected within our skull, and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death. So, they are not entirely “out there,” and they are not entirely “in here,” either. It is not possible to be one or two. Because love is all you need. There are betweenThe unmistakable and sometimes indescribable relationship between two people is called two people. We can recognize love once we’ve experienced it. Then we can allow it to come into our awareness and let it flow from us. It goes beyond love for the body and bones of those we have known on the earthly plane. Loving is something we all possess, no matter who it is shared with or what the return is. This transcendent feeling is one of the best experiences, an unrequited love. The best times together taught us to love and be loved. Our bonded experiences have made that our loved ones and those who love us are part of our lives now. We can access them and take action as necessary in the past and future.

Complement The Grieving Brain with a mathematician’s geometric model for living with grief and this soulful animated film of “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — the most beautiful homily on the emotional paradox of loss I know — then revisit Nick Cave’s life-honed wisdom on grief as a portal to greater aliveness.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


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