Ch.217 Why Is Grief Such a Strange Feeling?
One thing that has puzzled me all through the last 15 months is why does grief feel so different from any of my other emotions? I’ve felt sad before, but never this sad. I’ve been lonely before, but never this lonely. It’s not just intensity, either. Grief, to me, feels like it belongs in a different category than my other emotions. Experiencing my grief has been like a biologist finding a new flower and then discovering that it belongs to an entirely different species than anything ever previously known.
I’ve been reading a book called The Grieving Brain, by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor, in which the author writes about the neuroscience of grief. She describes several areas of the brain that “light up” (showing activity) when someone is grieving. Two regions are the posterior cingulate cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These areas are part of our attachment circuitry, allowing us to bond deeply with others. O’Connor describes grieving as the brain’s continuing effort to locate a deeply loved missing person. It’s as if Pat didn’t die forever; she must just be gone for a while, but she’s lost, so I better go find her. The deeper the bond, according to O’Connor, the more intense and long-lasting the search. Maybe that’s why my grieving, especially early on, included a panicky feeling, a sense of great urgency.
O’Connor added one finding from her research that astounded me: a part of the brain that is not activated during grieving is the amygdala. I was an anger management counselor, so I know a lot about the amygdala. It lights up in virtually all emotional experiences, both bad and good. This, to me, is “proof” that grief is very different than normal feelings.
Put these findings together, and here’s what I think it means: grief is not really an emotion, at least not in the normal sense of the word. Rather, the word “grief” describes the agony occurring when our deepest bond is broken, including our need to find and bring home the lost person. Grieving is the physical evidence of our inability to accept the fact that our bonded partner is gone forever.
I envy my more religious friends who believe they will be reunited in heaven with their deceased loved ones. For me, my task is to reorganize my brain. I need to accept as permanent the loss of my loved one. Pat is gone forever. She will never come back. I will never find her no matter how long I search. The trouble is, though, that part of me will never accept that reality. I believe that part of my brain will keep searching for my missing love for the rest of my life.