How grief overwhelms and transforms who we are

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Credit: Vision.org
Credit: Vision.org

Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviors that ensure our survival, takes center stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the center of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ [neurologist Lisa] Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centers of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. 

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There is little we can do to change this response, she adds, though we wouldn’t necessarily want to; it’s essential for adjusting to the loss. ‘We’re at the mercy of this whole process, basically,’ Shulman says.

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