The Surprisingly Comforting Science Behind Grief
Everyone experiences loss at some point.
Sooner or later, we all learn what bereavement, an unpleasant but unavoidable part of living, feels like.
Humans have been grieving for millennia, and the past two years have been no exception. Recently, many across the United Kingdom mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whilst the ongoing global pandemic has tragically led to more than six million people leaving empty chairs around tables across the world. As a result, millions have been bereaved: in the US, researchers estimate that each death from Covid-19 left, on average, nine people affected.
I was bereaved, too. Towards the end of lockdown, my grandmother passed away from an aggressive cancer. She was my first proper loss. Her death stunned me, and everything compounded when travel restrictions forced me to miss her funeral. For several months, I felt eaten up by the grief that followed, and distressed by the strong feelings I had.
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything”
My name is Livia, and I write popular science blogs on everything from archaeology to mental health.
As somebody who armours herself with knowledge when times get rough, I started researching grief whilst I was going through it. I read books like A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis and listened to Sufjan Stevens. Art had an amazing way of making me feel less alone with my feelings, but something about literature and music did not feel enough to answer the questions I had. I wanted to learn the science behind grief and understand what was happening in my brain.
Could science explain why human beings grieve — and why loss feels so bad?
What I found surprised me, and taught me something really important about myself.
In the end, some of the best comfort I found did not come from art and music, but from evolutionary psychology and bereavement science.
Feeling intrigued? Here is the amazing — and oddly comforting — science behind grief.
Sounding the alarm
Before it happened to me, I thought that grieving was mostly like feeling sad, and I was surprised at the emotional turmoil I had. Researchers, however, actually consider bereavement one of the most stressful things we can go through.
During the first few weeks of bereavement, the intense release of stress hormones often affects both physical and mental health. Scientific studies have shown that bereaved persons typically have faster heart rates and often have symptoms resembling depression, compared to similar persons who have not recently experienced bereavement. Other common effects after bereavement include abnormal sleep patterns and strong emotions, such as despair, anxiety and anger.
This grieving response, which often feels like emotional chaos, originates in the evolution of our brains and how important human relationships continue to be for our species. In her book, The Grieving Brain, neuroscientist and bereavement expert Mary-Frances O’Connor explains that mammals and early humans developed the need for closeness with others for care and protection, which psychiatrist John Bowlby termed attachment theory.
It might sound obvious, but our loved ones play very important psychological and biological roles in our lives because when our brains evolved thousands of years ago, our world was stalked by food scarcity and predators, and being separated from somebody was dangerous. Separation instantly had our limbic system sound the alarm so that we would find them again.
Ancient brains in a modern world
We could theoretically survive without human contact by ordering takeaway and working online from home, but compared to the lengthy timeline of human history, we are still closely related to our prehistoric ancestors and have kept the same prehistoric brains. We are still hardwired to nurture relationships, and when an important person dies, as O’Connor shares in her book, our palaeo brain sounds the same alarm, and struggles emotionally to understand that death means permanent separation. In fact, our emotional brain expects the lost person to return soon — as if they have only gone into the woods to pick berries.
That “magical thinking,” O’Connor says, happens even though we can cognitively understand that they will not come back. This dissonance explains why grieving takes time and sometimes becomes complicated — the information simply does not square with the attachment formed inside our minds and the resulting conflict in the brain feels both confusing and upsetting.
Adjusting can take many months of waking up and realising what has happened, but the brain works to update itself each day and predicts less and less that they will return, and eventually, the process allows most people to overcome the intensity of early grief.
An expression of love
Grief, then, seems to be more or less an unfortunate side effect that comes from having close relationships with other people. Some evolutionary biologists even mean that grieving has no biological purpose, as bereavement seems more debilitating than useful. The emotional turmoil instead becomes the tough price we pay for human attachment, which thereby reflects our attachment to the person we have lost.
So, when my grandmother died, my strong reaction happened because my brain had been informed that somebody was missing — somebody who had cared for me and taught me about the world so that I could survive and thrive. Her physical absence made no sense because she was there inside my neural pathways, and in responding the way it did, my brain was doing everything it was supposed to, processing her death so that I could, in due time, move forward.
Although devastating loss can never be “fixed” by any knowledge, understanding the biological roots of grieving can be really comforting for people going through the scary psychological landscape that bereavement puts you in. It certainly was for me — grieving felt completely overwhelming, but I found comfort knowing that grieving was not beyond scientific explanation, and by helping me understand my emotional state, experts like Mary-Frances O’Connor quelled any anxiety I had about my feelings.
Science helped me feel normal during an abnormal time, and eventually, I was also able to find some meaning in it all — by reminding myself that when grief emerges, our brain expresses deep-rooted love for whomever or whatever we have lost.
Header image by Brandi Redd on Unsplash.