Rewiring Your Brain During Grief

Blog reading here.

The experience of grief and loss is one of the most difficult aspects of being human.  It is especially difficult when we are already struggling with chronic illness or trauma patterns and then the death of a loved one occurs simultaneously.

I want to speak about this issue as it seems like more than a normal amount of my clients/community members and friends have been going through the process of grief while trying to rewire their brain and find healing from chronic illness.

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Grief is not a “negative emotion” that must be ‘rewired’.  

It is a natural and normal physiological and emotional response and is a healthy reaction to loss.  I’ve come across some wacky ideas from those in the rewiring community that they need to “rewire their grief” and do away with it.  Grief is not a limbic impairment, it’s a response by the brain that is trying to make sense of how to understand what has happened.

Grief is a process of learning to include it, not resolve it.

The brain is being asked to understand how to conceptualize where this person still exists.  It’s a shock to the psyche in some ways to try to understand how to be okay when that person is no longer living.  I think this is a process of teaching the brain that the person is not living, but the love for the person never leaves, and furthermore, the energetic and spiritual connection is eternal.  So the brain is learning that love lasts even though there is sadness and absence. This is a real paradox for the brain, and that is why the process of acceptance and processing grief does take time.

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Traumatic loss can actually be experienced much like a brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Traumatic loss can trigger deep protection mechanisms in the brain and limbic system as loss is perceived as a threat to survival.  This creates a flood of emotions and results in neuroplastic changes in the brain.  The typical brain firing patterns are interrupted and new (usually temporary) brain firing patterns form that can cause a host of debilitating symptoms.  These symptoms can include brain fog, tiredness, forgetfulness, dissociation, sleep disturbance, immune dysregulation, heart changes, dysautonomia, and more.  This can result in a chronic stress response if grief is not met and processed. And yet, this grief is a normal protective process.  In other words, these symptoms are not wrong. But they are uncomfortable.

Grief and Depression are different, but they often feel the same.

I see grief as different from depression.  Why? Because a depressed person feels deeply discouraged/sad/hopeless even when those who love them are still around them.  A truly depressed person is depressed whether or not the person they lost would come back into their life.  Grief-based depression is due to the mind not being able to accept what has happened fully and the brain hasn’t yet learned how to move forward back into life.  If the deceased person were to suddenly come back to life, I think their ‘depression’ would end.

How to work with grief

Look at the ancient way of grief rituals

We are not wired to heal grief alone and the ancient cultures understood this.  Grief was a community event, not a personal event. This is huge.  We are wired to grieve together.  We are wired to wail and scream and shout and cry together as a tribe.  We have lost that ritual. Many modern cultures have lost the capacity to appropriately somatically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually process our grief.  

Find a grief circle or create one in your life with those who are burdened by the loss.  Learn about ancient grief rituals and seek to reenact them.  Learn about the “death wail” and find your own way to do this ideally with others.  At the very least find supportive friends who are able to hold space and listen to what this process has been like for you.

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Recognize the sacred spiritual process you are going through

Find books that help you create your own grief rituals such as “Good Grief Rituals” book by Elaine Childs-Gowel.  This book was helpful to me in my processing of grief.  There are others as well.  Find a way to make the process rich with ceremony.  

Take the time to journal, process, and be with yourself and fully express all your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  This allows your brain to consciously see all that is happening so that it can “learn” to catch up with the current reality and begin to go through the process of acceptance.

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Find a way to somatically express grief.

The body wants to weep and wail, shout and scream.  Do it.  Let your body speak and move the energy.  And then find grounding and self-compassion for the body and its experience.  

Remember to do your best to love yourself enough to eat well, sleep as best you can, and move your body daily ideally outside in the sun.

Grief doesn’t go away, your memory of loss will be with you.  Grief does howeverer become included in your experience and therefore doesn’t take up all of your brain space as you go through the process of acceptance.

Brain Retraining While Experiencing Grief

In the brain retraining world, we are told to “elevate our mood and visualize a positive future.”  That can be very difficult during grief.  And it’s also important to teach the brain that there isn’t danger happening so the brain can calm down after the loss of a loved one.  

I recommend still trying to do some uplifting practices daily, whether it’s brain retraining, time with friends, watching funny movies, walking in nature, etc.  And also be realistic in what your visualizations are as it might be more about being calm, feeling connected, and enjoying nature rather than “yay, life is so much fun right now!”  So take a moderate approach that is not discounting your current experience of grief.

That being said, it doesn’t mean to let grief take you into a hole.  Try to have a container time to “really grieve”.  For example, I”m going to take the next 20 min and really let myself cry, shout, move, grieve, and then I’m going to go for a nice walk or make myself a cup of tea and read a book I enjoy.  In other words, it is about finding a balance between processing grief and also showing your brain there is still life to live that can be satisfying.

We must learn to hold the tensions of the opposites.

I am sad, and I am still here with a life to live.

I miss them, and yet their love is still with me

I don’t want life to go on without them, yet life is still calling me to live.

And know that in time, your brain will ‘learn’ how to have a new relationship with your loved ones, and will accept that it is a more spiritual and energetic connection now while having the capacity to have gratitude for the physical connection of the past.

For those that are grieving now, may you take a moment to feel the eternal connection to the one you love that cannot be taken. Love is eternal.  May you learn to hold these tensions of opposites and find new life ahead, while including the grief of this moment.

Dr. Cat

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