A few weeks ago I heard an interview with social-cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman on the NPR show “Science Friday” about his research into the social underpinnings of our cognitive and emotional processes. The interviewer asked about Dr. Lieberman’s counterintuitive finding: that grief can activate the reward centers of the brain. My ears perked up. How could that be, I wondered? When I think about the process of mourning Alec, I recall pain, despair, torment, and confusion…but pleasure? Nope, not even close.
It turns out he was referring specifically to chronic or long-term grief — also called “complicated” grief. This is what occurs when a bereaved person becomes “stuck” in grief and shows no signs of improvement after a specified period of time. I became familiar with the distinction between acute and chronic grief after losing Alec, as one of my coping mechanisms was to read every book and article about grief I could find in an effort to understand what the heck I was experiencing. After several months passed and I seemed to not be improving (by this point, I had learned to fake it well enough on the outside most of the time, but on the inside I was the same — in pretty bad shape), I wondered if I was sliding into complicated grief, the kind that wasn’t going to resolve itself with the passage of time and active attention.
As no two relationships are the same, no two grieving experiences will be the same, but there are patterns, and I read with interest the factors that can lead to chronic grief and becoming “stuck” (e.g. the nature of the relationship, the circumstances surrounding the death, other sources of social support, etc.). I wondered what prevented people from being able to move forward and to heal. I wondered, idly, if that was going to be me.
It wasn’t. I got better, eventually. Acute grief periods vary in length and mine lasted about a year, which is on the longer end of the spectrum. But after around a year I began to feel the fog lift some. It is not a coincidence that this coincided with my adopting Teagan.
That’s just some background on my interest in the subject. In all my reading about grief reactions, including normal behavior versus warning signs, I had never come across this research suggesting long-term grief can activate the reward center of our brain (and hence contribute to keeping people stuck). For me, I hit a crossroads eventually where it became very clear to me that moving forward was a choice I could make, that I was in control. This realization seems simple, obvious, but it was in marked contrast to the overwhelming feeling that is typical of many grievers in the acute stage of grief: loss of control. Not only could you not control your loved one’s death, but your emotions and even your thoughts seem to careen out of control. It is a scary place. So getting to a place where I felt in control of the choice to feel better or not was a revelation, a huge step forward. I realized staying stuck was also a choice.
I don’t mean to minimize the experience of being stuck. I was truly that way until I turned a corner and wasn’t. Reading this, or hearing of others’ experiences, wouldn’t have helped me before I arrived there in my own time. The light bulb went on when it went on.
As we listened to the interview together, C. suggested maybe self-pity could be activating the reward center. This didn’t resonate with me and my experience, although I tried to honestly examine my reaction to see if it was because “self-pity” has an obvious negative connotation that most people instinctively reject as a descriptive label for their behavior or motivation. But I truly think it just didn’t resonate, though for some perhaps this would have relevance. In trying to objectively analyze what does feel true for me (Ha! As if I can objectively analyze myself — this is the true province of subjectivity. But we can still try, right?), I realized what I do think is that the pain can feel like a tribute, a measure of love, an offering, even a sacrifice. Because it is all you have left of the beloved, your pain can become a monument. Or at least it can feel like your grief is all you have left of your loved one, the only thing remaining to bind you together in the shadow of their physical absence. Without it, will we be untethered forever?
While it undoubtedly can feel this way, it’s of course not true. You don’t lose them more when you stop actively grieving (and you cannot keep them with you by clinging to the pain, by stoking it and keeping it alive like some twisted bonfire of sorrow), and you can honor them with joy and happiness. I remember being so bewildered, so utterly lost. “Adrift” was a word that resonated with me. For a time, Alec was my world. I loved him so intensely, so immensely. When he was gone there was a gaping hole where he’d been. The pain closed the gap, almost like a bridge from me to him. Grief can act as a string, permanently tying us to the person who has gone. Many grievers upon beginning to feel better experience an unexpected jolt of guilt. How can I be smiling when my loved one is gone? How can I laugh when he suffered so much? It is not rational, it is just something that grievers at times experience. When you begin to smile again, it can feel like you are abandoning them in some way.
Although it is a common aphorism and I had never thought of it critically until now, I’m not sure I believe that the depth of our pain is the measure of our love. However, our culture feeds this idea. How many times have you heard (or read in sympathy cards) that the depth of the sorrow we feel in our time of mourning is a reflection of how much we loved the being we have lost? This is true to an extent. Beyond, it can become almost a competition with yourself. Competition isn’t really the right word, but if the pain begins to recede (as inevitably it will, except in cases of complicated grief, which is not something to which to aspire) does that mean I did not love them enough? This doesn’t make sense at all if you haven’t experienced it. It barely makes sense to me as a type it. But I know this was working below the surface of my consciousness at different times in my grief process. I had a few glimpses of clarity where I realized that by holding my pain, I was trying to hold Alec. I tried a few times to loosen my grip, to let myself experience joy, and I realized I could feel closer to him in these moments of beauty. It was a seemingly small revelation, but a big step forward.
I vividly remember driving home one day listening to a song I liked, and the sun was setting and the light was beautiful, golden. And I cried. But it was okay. I was crying because the light was beautiful and Alec was beautiful and his life was beautiful and my love for him, also beautiful, and I could see all of this, and the tears took on a different tone. It was a tiny moment that was a significant part of my being able to move forward…to experience him, to feel him, to remember him, in moments of happiness and joy, not just pain and sorrow. I imagine most people who move out of the acute grief stage (whether it lasts two months or two years [I recently read that six weeks is average]) experience some version of this shift. Not of letting go (I will never let him go) but of shifting our grip.
So is that how long-term grief can activate the reward centers of our brain, I wondered? Was it something about grief becoming a stand-in for our beloved? The mistaken belief that if we loosen our grip on the pain, then we will lose them definitively and forever? (Mistaken because, of course, we have already lost them.) But staying actively stuck in grief can be one way to keep memories alive, and maybe it can facilitate the feeling that the lost love is still an ongoing presence. I understand that. I am not saying it is a healthy adaption to loss, but I think I get it.
I still think of Alec, but it’s nothing like when I was in the acute stages of grief. The year after he died, it was like I was living with a ghost. I miss that ghost, but I don’t miss the pain. It became a self-destructive force. Choosing to live, and to love again (Teagan!!), was for me a better way to honor and remember Alec than trying to tie his ghost to me permanently. But everyone copes differently and I’m not judging. Being self-reflective about what I am feeling and experiencing is just another coping mechanism for me (in addition to the book-reading). To try to stand outside myself and see my experience as objectively as possible, within the confines of my own consciousness. I don’t know how successful any of us can be at this, but for some reason I am compelled to try. And undoubtedly, engaging in reflection, to the extent I could remove myself a bit from the pain I was feeling in the acute stage of grief, was therapeutic for me.
So what of this interview? It appears I have made this entire post about ME. Bait and switch! Gee, I didn’t intend to. But I guess that’s okay; this blog is a chronicle of my personal experience grieving for the dog who was the love of my life. I barely remember the findings of that research now. But I had felt stuck and wanting to write again, and it served that purpose (thanks C. for the suggestion). You can read more here and here, but basically the idea is that engaging in memories of the dearly departed caused a pleasurable surge, almost akin to addiction, and this was the mechanism by which the reward centers were activated in people stuck in chronic grief. This is a nice summary, from the second article linked above:
Grief is universal, and most of us will probably experience the pain grief brings at some point in our lives, usually with the death of a loved one. In time, we move on, accepting the loss.But for a substantial minority, it’s impossible to let go, and even years later, any reminder of their loss — a picture, a memory — brings on a fresh wave of grief and yearning. The question is, why? Why do some grieve and ultimately adapt, while others can’t get over the loss of someone held dear?Reporting in the journal NeuroImage, scientists at UCLA suggest that such long-term or “complicated” grief activates neurons in the reward centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction-like properties. Their research is currently available in the journal’s online edition.This study is the first to compare those with complicated and noncomplicated grief, and future research in this area may help psychologists do a better job of treating those with complicated grief, according to Mary-Frances O’Connor, UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study.“The idea is that when our loved ones are alive, we get a rewarding cue from seeing them or things that remind us of them,” O’Connor said. “After the loved one dies, those who adapt to the loss stop getting this neural reward. But those who don’t adapt continue to crave it, because each time they do see a cue, they still get that neural reward.“Of course, all of this is outside of conscious thought, so there isn’t an intention about it,” she said.
That’s all for now. Wherever you are in your journey, I wish you peace and comfort. Happy New Year. Keep your chin up.