The Effects of Grief and the Opportunity For Healing

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

As with so many human experiences, grief is a subject that many people do not deeply contemplate until some event causes them to grieve. Asked for a definition of grief, people who have not gone through the grieving process might simply define it as an emotion, as if it were an intense form of sadness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Grieving is a complex spiritual, physiological, emotional and even social process.

Medical doctors along with psychologists see the effects of traumatic events and the grief that follows in an intimate way. Their experience and insights about the grieving process can be invaluable for someone who is experiencing a deep loss for the first time. If someone has read about the process but has not experienced it, they may find a sizable gap between what they think they know and what they are going through.

In a webinar for the American Brain Foundation, neurologist Lisa M. Shulman, MD, explores how tragedy affects the brain and how grief can literally rewire it. It helps to frame the concept by understanding how the brain responds to the grief that follows events such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness or divorce. Dr. Shulman explains it this way: “Traumatic loss is perceived as a threat to survival and (the brain) defaults to protective survival and defense mechanisms. This response engages the fight or flight mechanism, which increases blood pressure and heart rate and releases specific hormones. Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog. The brain’s goal? Survival.”

Many people underestimate the time required for the brain to cope with all of this unprecedented input. In other words, they can hardly believe how long grieving can go on. Another complicating factor is that everyone grieves differently. Everyone is unique. Some people have resumed normal life, even if it is a “new normal,” after a few months. Others grieve for years. Also, grieving is not a linear process. You don’t simply get a little better day after day. It’s very often two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes two steps forward and three back. One thing is certain, though: grief cannot be avoided. It can be ignored and put off, but those who do so may be shocked many years later to find a new traumatic event triggers their long-suppressed grief and they seemingly over-react to the new tragedy.

In regard to the brain’s response to grief, it can actually reduce the brain’s nerve growth. What’s more, the more it happens, the more the brain becomes hardwired in its response. The good news is that this process can be reversed. MDs, grief counselors and psychologists have long witnessed the positive and healing effects of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness practices and meditation.

In sum, there is no way around the grieving experience. Nor should there be. Grief is the flip side of love. Anyone who loves is going to experience grief following the loss of the beloved, and the deeper the love, the deeper the grieving. Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD. describes it this way: “Love and grief are two sides of the same precious coin. One does not — and cannot — exist without the other. They are the yin and yang of our lives… Grief is predicated on our capacity to give and receive love. Some people choose not to love and so never grieve. If we allow ourselves the grace that comes with love, however, we must allow ourselves the grace that is required to mourn.”

Watch Dr. Shulman’s full webinar below.