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Book Review-The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss

Often, it’s described as a brain fog.  It’s the inability to think after the loss of a loved one.  It feels like you’ve got to make so many decisions, yet your ability to make them is compromised at best.  The worst part is you don’t know how impacted you are or how long it will last.  That’s why The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss is so important.  It’s a map of the territory that begins at our loss and continues throughout our lives as we learn to navigate in the absence of our loved one.

Life Map Navigation

Without knowing it, we all use a “map” to navigate our lives.  The map is the predictions we have of what will happen.  (See Mindreading for more on the role of prediction in our lives, and Superforecasting for more on how we do it best.)  It is knowing what we’ll take care of and what will be taken care of for us.  It’s the things we can count on and those we can’t.  (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more about our relationship with trust and other people.)  When we lose someone close to us, that map no longer makes sense.  (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more about what “close” means.)

Gary Klein, in Sources of Power, explains that we’re always making models in our heads.  These models unconsciously guide the way we respond.  The removal of someone close in our lives radically alters the way that things work, which takes time to adapt to.  We literally must reevaluate every assumption – and get reminded about the thousand or more things that we took for granted because that person was there.

Put Out the Fire

Tethered to Them

We’ve all talked with people who are constantly reminded of their loved one.  Whether it’s the home, bed, car, or restaurant that they loved together, the reminders come in big and small ways – and they’re never ending.  Two things shift over time.  First, the degree to which the reminders are recognized decreases.  As we habituate to the experiences without our loved one, we are generally triggered to be aware of their absence less often.

Second, their loss becomes more accepted.  We begin to rewire around the idea that they’re not present and won’t be present, so we stop being so intensely aware of their absence.  I say this with care, because I don’t want anyone to believe that grief is ever done or that it goes away – it’s just that it changes.

Another more subtle transformation is that we stop focusing exclusively on the loss and can begin to accept the positive memories of the times that we did have with them.

Psychological Distance

The same parts of our brain that compute distance across space and time seem to also compute the relational distance between us and others.  We collectively use this mechanism to predict whether someone will be there for us.  The further away in space, time, or relationship, the less likely we believe they will be there when we need them.  We equate separation – and therefore loneliness – using the same framework.  (See Loneliness for more about loneliness.)  It might be said that the brain encodes distance in here, now, and close.

Not Accepting Gone

Many people who have lost their loved one acknowledge a state that is both knowing they’re gone and feeling like they’re not at the same time.  It’s not surprising, as memories are encoded differently in different parts of our brain.  We can intellectually know something – and still emotionally struggle with it.  There’s an added complication: we’re wired through evolution to consider the possibility that our loved one will return.

There’s an advantage to protecting our children and our families if we expect that our loved ones will return.  We’ll be willing and able to invest more resources in ensuring that the children are okay.  In evolutionary terms, people often went off, and their return was uncertain.  We’d never know if they left us or were injured or killed.  While most losses today are certain, those losses which involve an ambiguous return are those that are the most challenging.

Cooking a Memory

It would be convenient if our memory was a perfect representation of the past.  It would be great if we could find our way to any bit of our history and faithfully play back our experience.  Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.  We see many places where our brain automatically fills in the gaps in ways that hide our ability to recognize that it has done it.  (See Incognito for a visual representation of this and Thinking, Fast and Slow for Kahneman’s explanation of System 1 to System 2 handoff.)  Memories are stored in different parts of our brain and are reassembled on recall.  Like a chef fetching pieces from different places, our brain reassembles an approximation of the events.

The most challenging aspect of this process is that the “recalled” memory is more like recreated, and it’s done with elements of the current context rather than the original context.  When we’re depressed, we’ll recreate the memory with more negative elements.  This can lead to a reinforcing loop that can be very problematic.  (See Capture for more.)

The Griever’s Journey

Kubler-Ross’ description of grief has been criticized for being overly simplistic and linear (particularly in The Grief Recovery Handbook).  The Grieving Brain calls it an “old outdated” model.  Make no mistake, it’s not perfect; however, I believe George Box, a statistician, who said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  O’Conner believes that the popularity of the model is due to is similarity to the monomyth that Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey.  (See The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)  In a follow up email conversation with O’Conner, she was able to provide the research that supports these statements.

The reference to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is a direct assertion made by the research – but that assertion is made in a very loose way with no attempt to map Kubler-Ross’ model to the monomyth.  The assertion that the model is outdated is proposed by some of the backing research.  In particular, the references are to other models – which O’Conner explains in the book.  However, where Kubler-Ross’ model is something that people can identify with, and it provides a framework for what to work on, the other models are largely descriptive.

Loss and Restoration

The one model that’s interesting – though still difficult to execute on – is focused on the oscillation that happens.  In grief, people spend some time on loss.  They spend some time on restoration.  These are natural oscillations.  Sometimes, those grieving are focused on the loss and what will not ever come to be.  Other times, they’re focused on how to make their situation better.  “Better” may mean the mechanics of life, or it may be a proactive approach to try to prevent others from feeling the loss they’ve felt.

What’s important is the recognition that this oscillation is healthy.  There’s no clear indication when – or if – this oscillation will end.


Perhaps the one key word in The Grieving Brain is ”yearning.”  It’s the desire to be with the person whom they’ve lost.  It’s a preoccupation with the idea of what might be happening if they were here.  Yearning naturally fades over time.  While you always will miss the person who’s gone, the deep-felt longing or yearning is transformed over time.


Compounding the loss of a person close to you is that the person whom you’d turn to for support is the very person whom you can never talk with again.  You can certainly talk to them, but they’re not going to respond with a caring word or a gentle touch.  Loneliness explains the challenges with experiencing loneliness – and they’re not good.  It’s one of the most challenging experiences that someone can have.

Complicating this loss of someone close is the tendency for other, more distant, friends, relatives, and colleagues to take a step back.  Some will argue that this is to create space for the person.  For others, it’s clear that they’re not comfortable with the topic of death, and as a result, they retreat to protect themselves.  (See The Worm at the Core and The Denial of Death for more.)

Positive Emotional Toolkit

There’s a misconception about the need for someone who is grieving to stay in a sad, depressed state eternally.  Sometimes, there’s a focus on working through the grief.  However, this often undermines the need for positive experiences.  A good strategy is to create positive experiences – and to work through the feelings of guilt or inappropriateness that may accompany these experiences.  The loved one you lost undoubtedly wouldn’t want you to be sad and depressed forever, but sometimes we believe that finding joy isn’t appropriate.

More than appropriate, it’s practically required.  So, it’s a good idea to build yourself a positive emotional toolkit.

Good – Then and Now

Grief changes the rules of the game.  Things will never be the same again – however, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be good again.  They’ll just be good differently.  We can say that things were good then, before the loss – and they’re good now, despite the loss.  The truth is that we don’t have to stay in The Grieving Brain forever.  Sometimes the right answer is to accept that today – or at least tomorrow – can be good, too.

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