Loss is a challenging but unavoidable aspect of life. Even from an early age, we experience the loss of people, animals, or objects that are important to us. Whether you’ve recently lost someone important to you or you’re curious about the process of grief, understanding what it is can help us move through it with some more ease.
Grief is defined as a person’s reaction to loss during or after a traumatic event, which can include the loss of a life or drastic changes in routine or ways of life that were previously comfortable or happy. As defined by Dr. Andrew Huberman, an American neuroscientist, grief is a process, a motivational state of yearning and desire for something. It is not just about sadness, but both a state of pain and wanting.
Misconceptions and Stages of Grief
Grief is not depression. Grief and depression are two separate things. Depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. On the other hand, grief is essentially not a sad feeling. The process of grief is an attempt to reach out and get something you really want.
According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are 5 Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Denial is the initial stage of trying to survive the loss by thinking nothing makes sense and going numb. Once denial starts to fade away, we start to live in reality again and anger might start to set in. This is the stage when we blame others for the cause of our grief. Sometimes, the anger is redirected to family and close friends. The next stage is believing we can avoid grief by engaging in some sort of negotiation. Bargaining usually sounds like “If I had done xyz, then everything would be different”. The desperation to go back to how everything was before the loss is so strong, that we are willing to make drastic changes just to get things back to normal. Depression is the most accepted form of grief. We may find ourselves not wanting to talk and be surrounded by other people, or at its worst, experiencing suicidal thoughts. The last stage of grief is acceptance. This is when we come to terms with the new reality and recognize that we’ll be okay.
Three Dimensions of Relationships
Understanding the dimensions in which we map our relationship to persons, animals, and things helps us understand why it hurts when these are no longer accessible to us. Dr. Huberman, in his podcast on The Science & Process of Healing from Grief, has identified three dimensions of relationships: Space, Time and Closeness (Emotional Attachment). Space is the physical proximity in which we can identify a particular person (animal or thing). Time refers to the amount of time it would take to reach this particular person (animal or thing). Closeness refers to the emotional attachment we have to these people, animals, or things or how bonded we feel to them.
Having a relationship with someone usually entails predicting where and when we can be with them in order to feed our emotional attachment. However, when we lose access to them the ability to compute the space (where) and time (when) to reach them becomes destroyed while the closeness (emotional attachment) remains. This is incredibly difficult for the brain to comprehend and this is where the process of grief comes in.
Re-mapping the Dimensions and Coping with Grief
Our brain has created a “memory bank” for everything with which we have a relationship. When we think about seeing someone, our brain immediately predicts where and when we can see them. However, it becomes disorienting if we are still emotionally attached to someone who we can no longer locate in space and time.
According to neuroscience, the best approach to grief is to remap these three dimensions to help us move through the grieving process. This can be achieved by acknowledging the emotional attachment while accepting that we will no longer be able to “locate” this person. We keep the sense of closeness, but we must separate it from the other two dimensions.
This can be achieved by acknowledging the emotional attachment whenever the pang of grief hits. People have different ways of doing this: journaling about the thoughts and feelings that arise, writing a letter to the person we have lost, practicing mindfulness to move through the emotions. This last one is one of my favorites because I can practice it anywhere at any time. What I do is close my eyes and place my hand over my heart. I notice where I’m experiencing the emotion in my body (tightness in my throat, heaviness in my chest, tension around my eyes) and I practice taking big, deep belly breaths until I notice a change.
In order to effectively help the brain remap the loss, it’s important to stay focused on the present and not fall into “what if” thinking. What does it feel like RIGHT NOW? Even though this person, animal, or thing is no longer present in my life, how am I experiencing my love for them IN THIS VERY MOMENT? How am I experiencing their love for me at this moment?
The loss of a loved one can be overwhelming, but many people get through it with the help of family and friends. Take care of yourself, accept offers of assistance from those around you, and seek counseling if necessary.
Should you need help going through the grieving process, here’s a list for you to check out: