How your brain works to help you cope with deep grief

  • "The Grieving Brain" takes a look at the grieving process and how the brain helps you cope and find a new way to navigate your life.

    "The Grieving Brain" takes a look at the grieving process and how the brain helps you cope and find a new way to navigate your life.

Posted4/22/2023 9:00 AM

I just read a new book about the effects of grief on the brain, and the role of certain processes in the brain that help us cope with grief.

It's called "The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss," (HarperOne, 2022) by Mary-Frances O'Connor. She's a neuroscientist and a psychologist, and she heads up a research lab on this topic at the University of Arizona. It's fascinating.


I am very interested in the intersection of emotion, science and religion, so when my sister-in-law Noelle brought this book to my attention, I ordered it right away. And I'm glad I did. In a way, it's a scientific angle on the coping I've been writing about for five years now. And as we all know, I'm a sociologist not a neuroscientist, so I've been coming at how we cope with grief from a cultural and social point of view. So this was new to me.

It's all about cognitive processes such as yearning, "mapping," which is a process in the brain, and about learning from a neurological point of view. It's sort of a scientific analysis of how we get our bearings on life after the death of a beloved spouse, partner, parent, child or friend. It goes into one reason why we lose our bearings at the death, and how our brain helps us learn to navigate life after the death of that dear one. At least that's how I understand the main ideas of the book.

Mapping turns out to be a neurological process that helps us. Over time we have formed a "map" in our brains based on our relationships that allows us to carry on our daily lives and function with certainty. But at the death of a dearly loved one, this map no longer serves us and we lose our bearings, so to speak. (My word.) We grieve and are often at a loss, not knowing what to do now. So the brain must build up a new map, which happens slowly as we learn and store new ways to cope with and manage grief, and we build new behaviors and routines that allow us to navigate the day-to-day world and our relationships with others. And this allows us to achieve some measure of regaining our equilibrium.

I've run across a certain term in writings on grief -- recovery or recovering. And I've wondered if there is ever such a state.

Does one ever recover from deep grief, from long-term grief? I've always thought of healing as a process of learning how to cope and manage grief. In "The Grieving Brain," on page 208, O'Connor refers to grief as a form of learning. Maybe that's the connection between the scientific and the social aspects of grief. Interesting.

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The point is: There's always more to learn out there. A while ago, I wrote about the work of another neuroscientist who published her findings on how love "rewires" the brain to form attachments so deep that it leads to intense grief on the death of that person. ("Wired for Love," Stephanie Cacioppo, 2022).

So now with "The Grieving Brain," we have another layer of understanding -- how our own brain helps us cope by creating a new map to navigate the unknown after a death of a beloved.

Personally I will always think of this process from a social-emotional standpoint, but I'm glad to know more about the scientific view.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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