Grief: Death loss, Non-death loss, and Neurobiology

Grief after death is both expected and understandable. As a result, we instinctively understand to the very core of our being that we are going to hurt and thus suffer, often extremely painfully. 

Grief is a very complex and difficult subject and hence this blog is just a small really an introduction into viewing grief from a neuro-biological perspective differently. 

 The death of a parent, partner, child, extended family member, or friend is often very difficult for those who remain behind. Circumstances surrounding a death can also make the grieving process even more complex, especially if those circumstances are violent, unexplainable, or unexpected. Grief is painful, it is messy, and it has no set timeline. Contrary to earlier thought, the grieving process does not unfold in a neat linear fashion with easy to follow steps; as it is in fact more like unraveling a huge ball of fishing line entangled with barnacles, rusted fishing hooks, and old plastic bags while standing waist deep in the ocean-neither pretty or easy. Standard bereavement leave for immediate family members most companies is just three days. There is no standard allocation for extended family, close friends, neighbors or co-workers.

 Grief after non-death losses are also, for the majority of people, underestimated, misunderstood, and mislabeled. So what are non-death losses? Events such as moving, changing schools, divorce, loss of job, loss of friends (either due to the severing of the friendship or moving), and physical or mental capacity due to age, illness, or accidents are some of the non-death losses human beings may experience in their lifetimes. Depending on circumstances, such as timing and personal autonomy regarding the situations of change, non-death loss can bring about positive long-term experiences but often there is an element of grief that accompanies the change, especially early on. For the majority of white western cultures, with exceptions, we do not do very well in supporting those who are experiencing grief through death and even less well with grief associated with non-death loss. 

 The following is therefore crucial to understanding grief from a neuro-biological perspective. 

 The human brain does not differentiate between death and non-death loss; to it they are all the same. To the brain, and thus the grieving and subsequent healing process, a heartbreak caused by the death of a loved one, separation, or the new phenomenon of ghosting another (i.e. the termination of a relationship) or divorce and even loss associated with moving etc. results in the same process. Our human brain considers all of these kinds of losses in exactly the same way. This is because when loss occurs, your brain needs to rewire itself and literally reorganize the neuro-pathways that were associated with the person or situation you are now grieving (1). Psychologist and a former professor of mine, Dr. Ginette Paris says, “until your brain is done with this updating, consider yourself handicapped: physically, emotionally, cognitively” (Heartbreak 1). Remember the fishing line analogy…

 Just to be clear here, I am NOT saying all loss is the same. Just that the brain processes loss in it the same way, no matter what the causes it. 

 The quicker we can process our loss and grief, the quicker we can move on and the quicker we can heal. The problem is that the human brain is very clever at avoiding pain, and it’s no wonder that grief is one of the most difficult of emotions we have to deal with. In fact, I believe that unresolved grief underlies many of our common neurosis and addictions. After all, if you couple our natural proclivity for pain avoidance with our cultural inexperience in supporting those who are grieving, its not hard to see you end up with a pretty emotionally dis-functional-population walking the planet!

 After a powerful class on Loss and Grief in my undergraduate years, I felt a strong pull to volunteer with teenagers who had lost a parent to accident, illness, or suicide. Every fortnight for a few hours we would gather and provide a space to process, be seen, and share in a peer-supportive environment. Many of these youngsters went on to lose close friends after the death of their parent, because many of those friends did not know how to be with someone in grief, let alone know what to say to them. Teenage years are already extremely difficult on many levels due to brain development, social pressures, and surging hormones, grief adds a complexity which literally is hardwired into their brains. 

 The messages we receive, both verbal and non-verbal, around our first loss shape the way we understand death and non-death loss. If we are not given the opportunity to explore the messages we received about loss and grieving we will continue the same patterns of processing time after time. Many of us are also left to fend for ourselves at a really young age with the tsunami flooding our bodies post heartbreak, and as a result we often cope in ways that keep us stuck at some level in our story. 

 In order for the brain and thus body to process and heal from death and non-death loss, we need rewrite the narrative, but not as a way of bypassing the emotion. Rather we need to find images and metaphors that aptly describe our heartbreak. Each loss has a particular feeling and tone, and as such, each may conjure up images and metaphors specific to that loss. For example: drowning in a tsunami is different than being hit by a truck, or falling into a well. But each of these are powerful and unique ways to explain, experience and understand your loss. These metaphors and images are like finding the end of the fishing line; on their own the will not untangle the complexity of ones loss and grief, but they are a place to begin the healing process. 

 If you are experiencing death or non-death loss, please find a local grief group, counselor, or spiritual community to help you or a loved one, including friends navigate the grieving process. We need help untangling the line, finding metaphor, and processing the way our loss impacts our lives and identities and quite often that will not come from those who are also suffering the same loss (human) or who have little experience with empathy. 


 What was the first loss you remember experiencing? What were the messages you received about that loss and how have those messages shaped the way you deal more recent loss in your life? What image or metaphor best describes your heartbreak? 

Lastly, find out what the bereavement leave allowance is for the company you work for and if there are exceptions (such as extended time for family who live abroad). 



Citations: and other interesting reads and links.

 Paris, Ginette. Heartbreak: Recovering From Lost Love and Mourning.Mill City Press: Minneapolis. 2011.

 The Healing Center, Seattle. WA.

 Psychology Today:

Greenspan, Miriam. Healing Through The Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Greif, Fear, and Despair. Shambhala: London. 2004.