Thomas Pisello 0:01
I’ve got an incredibly special guest that I’ve been looking forward to interviewing for a while since I heard about the release of her new book. This is Mary Frances O’Connor. She’s the author of a book called The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and from Loss.
And those of you who followed me know that I’m really into neuroscience, so can’t wait to talk to Mary Francis. She’s a researcher, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, where she studies how the mind, your brain and body react to and adapt to grief. And we’re here to explore her research and her new book, what happens to the brain on grief and how we can leverage that knowledge of how the brain is wired and how it works? To better mentally handle our grieving process and help in healing and growth.
Welcome, Mary. Frances O’Connor.
Mary Frances O’Connor 1:24
Oh, it’s so lovely to be here. Thomas.
Awesome. Tell me about what inspired you to research the grieving brain?
Mary Frances 1:34
Well, you know, writing this book was really the culmination of, gosh, I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. So many books have been written about what grief feels like. And I think that’s really valuable. But my own work has really focused on the why, and the how of grief. So why does it hurt so much? And why does it take so long to understand, to really understand that they’re gone? How does the brain manage to cope with all of that?
But having said that, there’s a personal side to this as well, When I was 13, my Mom was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. We thought she probably wouldn’t live through the year, but she actually lived another 13 years. That was a miracle, honestly. But there was a long period of “When will the other shoe drop?”. So there was a lot of grief in my family. And the thing about that was, I think it made me feel really comfortable talking with people who were grieving. So I say, “I don’t mind if you cry uncontrollably”.
And it somehow enabled me to stick with this as a topic and try to understand what people were saying, and how that matched to MRI scans and blood tests and stuff. So that’s been my process.
My daughters were 14 and 18, when my Judy passed, and it was a 10 year battle with cancer. So their journey, especially the younger one, I think, is not too unfamiliar from yours. You talked a little bit about some of the techniques that you used. Talk about that? How did you do the research to know exactly what was happening within the grieving brain?
Mary Frances 3:36
Well, I really came at it from a stress perspective. And so we know a lot about the stress systems of the body, and of the brain. And so I really thought about, okay, how would we specifically study grief, then, if we know that these are some of the systems that are likely to be affected?
And so I did originally use some psychophysiology measures, we would call them. Cardiovascular functioning. And then I moved on to using MR imaging, so looking at brain reactions to the photo of a loved one, for example.
And then eventually, we also looked at immune measures. So taking blood tests from people and looking to see what different kinds of reactions people were having.
So it went beyond just looking at the brain, where you looked at the brain in real time while you almost promoted that craving.
And then you looked at the body response to the grief as well. “cardiovascularly” and then longer term immune response, which with a lot of people that grieve, they wind up having heart issues long term and, you know, compromised immune response.
Mary Frances 4:53
Yeah, so the brain piece was really where I feel like I’ve learned so much. Those waves of grief that we were enabling in the scanner, really gave us a sense of what the brain is really doing.
It’s not “all in your head”, it’s, it’s also in your brain. And so looking at how the brain was reacting, when they were looking at a photo of their loved one, as compared to say, just a photo of a stranger, right? So it’s not just anyone you’re looking at, it’s specifically this person you’re bonded to? And how does that work.
So with that loss of attachment, and seeing that image of your loved one that was lost, how did the brain respond? I mean, what, what lit up right on the scans, and what didn’t light up and what was surprising about that, if anything?
Mary Frances 5:56
I think some of what we came to understand, of course, is that grief is very complex. So there are many aspects of the brain, many mental functions that are being called upon when we have a wave of grief.
And so some of the ones that won’t be surprising to anyone is that our memories are activated, and also our capacity to pay attention is compromised.
But what’s so interesting with people who are grieving, people will say, “this hurts”. And you know, we often think of that statement metaphorically. But it seems to me, from what we see in brain imaging scans, is that this might not just be a metaphor. If you think about physical pain, there’s the sensation of a physical pain, right? And the sensation part we have mapped out. But even with physical pain, we have what you might think of as the sort of suffering that comes along with it, that alarm of “this really hurts”, and “I should pay attention to this”, I should stop doing what I’m doing, however, the situation unfolds? Well, that attention aspect of reacting in the brain is also present when people are grieving. And so I think it’s not unexpected, maybe that people describe grief as painful. It is a similar if not same brain reaction.
And then there’s triggers, which I know occur. Uncontrollable outbursts of crying, maybe freezing in a moment, falling to the floor in a fetal position. Many of us who have been through grief experience that for me, sometimes it’s music, a song will trigger, even years and years later. Did you study anything with regard to that and how does the trigger occur? And then maybe in understanding the brain, how do we perhaps gain better control over that?
Mary Frances 8:11
So in the studies that we were doing, we were very specifically using a trigger of photographs, which is, of course, a visual trigger for many people. And that was the only trigger that we were using directly.
But other research has definitely demonstrated that all sorts of things cause our awareness to creep up on us. So what’s so interesting about that, I’ll give you one example. Many people experience more emotion, they feel like they’re experiencing more grief around the anniversary of a loss. This can be the anniversary of your loved ones birthday or Christmas.
There’s lots of things that remind us of their absence. And I think this is so important. So in the brain, we have all these expectations of how the world is supposed to be working. And when we’re walking around in the world, our brain is actually noticing that something is absent, right? I think this can be very isolating for people, a feeling for people because other people aren’t noticing that this person is absent, but we are very painfully aware of it.
So what causes us to become aware of that absence? I think these can be very subtle things. So I’ll give you an example. My birthday is in October, and this just passed recently, and I often have these feelings in October, and I realized that the sun is at a particular angle in October. And it’s not that I’m consciously thinking about my birthday. But simply the sun being at that angle somehow it works on my subconscious right. So I think many of the triggers that we experience are not something very obvious, but the way that our brain has a network of things associated with our loved one, and they end up bringing the person to mind or even just bringing the emotions to mind, in a way that seems unexplainable.
Now, the emotions that are brought up a lot of times are sad emotions, the emotions of loss, is there a way to reprogram that reaction, so that instead, it could bring joy that you even had that experience, which is so precious, that we had a loved one of that magnitude in our life, I mean, that’s what you’d love to have it replaced with, not a feeling of tears or anger, or cowering. You want it to not have that raw amygdala emotional reaction. You’d love it to be a little bit more caring and light instead of dark.
Mary Frances 11:22
I think that, you know, I described grief as the natural response to loss. And I think we have very little control over what our instantaneous reaction is, sometimes it is just anger. And other times it is just yearning. What we start to develop is more skill at what to do with those emotions, right.
So if I’m feeling that loneliness, associated with grief, over time, I may learn, ah, this is not a time that I should go for a walk by myself, which might be helpful in other instances. But this is a time when I need to reach out and phone my sister, for example.
And so in calling my sister then I often have many of those positive feelings. I know she’s there for me, I know, she really understands what I’m experiencing. And so I feel closeness with her. So the emotions start to be multifaceted, because of how I responded to what was happening.
Now, for most of us, the intensity and the frequency of these waves of grief tends to be reduced over time. And that is a natural process, as our brain comes to understand, “ah, this really happened, this is really true”. And also to understand, “I’m going to get through this moment”, there’s a familiarity there. And so grief doesn’t go away. But it does transform the way that we understand what it means for us. And then once we experience it, develop some skills around what do we do next, and how do we express that.
Now, there’s two types of stressors that you research found. One is Loss Stressors, and the other are Restoration Stressors. Talk about the definitions of those, and how do these matter in our experience of grief?
Mary Frances 13:32
Well, we often think about the loss stressors, when we’re talking about grief. This is many of those emotions that you already mentioned. It’s the yearning, but also all the difficulty concentrating. All those things that are associated with having experienced that death.
And while that is true, and many people have described that in the past, we also recognize that there’s a different kind of stressor, which is: “Given this is true, that my loved one has died, how am I going to restore a meaningful life?”. “What kinds of activities can I do now that still feel like they’re, meaningful?”, because initially, there can be a real sense that nothing is important.
So those restoration stressors are everything from having to figure out what I’m doing now in my life, and what I need to do in the future that can be everything from “my wife always paid the bills. And now I suddenly have to figure out”, and how to manage all of that. Everything from that to “we were going to retire together. And we had all these plans and now I have to figure out what’s that even going to look like” Right? So all of these sorts of present and future oriented stresses, and then how to do that. In a way that still honors the memory of the person who’s not there and feels meaningful to you, and fulfills “what is it that I’m doing now that actually feels meaningful?”.
For instance, I love that because I think a lot of people think of the loss stressors when they look at a grieving person, and they don’t realize how much of the present and future are impacted, not just the past, but it upset the entire applecart of our lives.
And I love that you research the restoration stressors in what you did.
Now, a lot of widowers that I talked to, they get very frustrated with their progress on the restoration side. And that adds even more to the stress because they’re like, “Well, I know I should be making progress. I know my beautiful bride would have loved for me to not be sad and not acting this way…to go on with life in a certain way. But I’m not doing that”. And it creates this loop.
And a lot of widowers describe being stuck. I think the proper word would be more stalled in it, because I see many of them come out of it eventually. But for those stuck in grief, what’s going on in their brains, and how do we maybe get out of that “stuckness”?
Mary Frances 16:20
This won’t surprise you, given all the things I’ve said so far. But I think of grieving as a form of learning, where you really have to learn “what does this mean?”, “What does this feel like?”, “What do I do when I feel these things?”.
And I believe that thinking about it that way, as learning, can be helpful. You can’t really rush learning. It just takes time, if you ever learned calculus, you did a lot of arithmetic and multiplication long before you got to calculus, right? So I think there’s a certain amount of just patience we have to have, and kindness to ourselves for ourselves – Grace – because our brain is working as hard as it can. It is making new neural connections, and it is trying its best.
But I will say that for people who feel stalled, there’s probably one way to think about that which could be helpful, because it’s helpful in learning. And that is, sometimes when we’ve been grieving for a while, there’s something we’re avoiding. Now, we might be avoiding a particular person, we might be avoiding a situation, we might be avoiding some feelings that just seem too painful. And often, when we’re stalled, I think it’s because we’re stuck there, we’re stuck in avoiding, which then prevents us from actually learning new things.
Avoiding means we can’t learn, and we’re not having experiences that our brain can incorporate. So I’ll give you a simple example. Let’s say your wife has died, and the two of you used to go out to dinner with friends, each Friday night. And since then, perhaps you’ve thought, there’s just there’s no way I can’t do this. It just reminds me of her too much. And they’re going to feel awkward, I’m going to feel awkward.
But with a little bit of support, telling your friends, look, I’m going to try this. I may bolt after 15 minutes, but I’m gonna try this. What can happen is that the first time you go out to dinner, it may not go very well. So you probably are going to think about her a lot. And you probably are going to feel really sad, and there will be awkward moments.
But if you do it again, it still may have sadness and yearning associated with it. But you may also realize, I never had the lobster bisque before. And that was actually pretty tasty. You know, I’ve never tried that. And this friend mentioned a book they’re reading. I’ve never heard of that. Maybe I’ll check that out.
And so you get this slow upward spiral where you’re going to have grief, but you’re also going to have all these other emotions and experiences. And if we just avoid the situation, we’re never going to have those present moment experiences where you feel loved right? Where you feel proud of yourself for having done it. And so that’s what I would say for people who are stalled. Try to figure out what you’re avoiding, which is hard to do because you’re probably avoiding it for a reason. And then find someone to help support you. Find some courage and give it a try, but give it a try more than once.
I love that. And what you’re describing is definitely implementing a growth mindset. It’s being reflective about the things that you’re not handling and dealing with, it’s going out and doing them and knowing that it’s going to take a long time, and you’ll probably have some stumbles. And then it’s embracing those stumbles and mistakes, but still, moving forward and upward.
That’s right, and not being in that shell, because I find that a lot of folks who are stuck in their progress from their own definition of stuck, tend to be in a loop. And they’re not in that upward growth trajectory.
So on the site, I’ve got a framework for growth mindset, what G – R – O – W – T, and H can mean So you can take a look at it.
You can checkout the framework article here –
The framework uses the word GROWTH and is defined as:
- G – Gravitate to the challenges placed before them (as opposed to avoiding the issues)
- R – Retain a positive outlook, despite struggles and challenges in the near term (instead of focusing on the negative)
- O – Operate in a space just outside their comfort zone (rather than avoiding discomfort)
- W – Work diligently, taking self-disciplined steps towards improving mind, body and spirit and enjoying the process and journey and not the end goal (versus avoiding the effort and focusing just on the outcome). As improvements are made and the healing occurs and you become an improved version of yourself, a growth mindset knows there is no success great or big enough that you can stand in its shadows forever. Success once you get it is usually a fleeting feeling almost like candy once you get it you crave more but in the end are left unsatisfied nutritionally. So it is important to focus on the work and the journey, wherein the happiness is the progress
- T – Take lessons from setbacks mistakes and criticism (as opposed to striving for perfection and not accepting feedback or acting on negative experiences)
- H – Help others to succeed, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others (as opposed to feeling threatened by others’ success), especially following the mantra whereby you should: “plant trees under whose shade you may never sit”.
There are also plenty of growth mindset books, growth mindset podcasts, and that learning process applied to grief, I think is one of the big secrets that’s helped me, Mary Frances it is, definitely great that the research showed that that is a way to kind of transcend.
Mary Frances 21:08
Yes, I think that’s the word. So my Father, of course, was a widow right after my Mom passed away. And you know, what’s interesting is, over time, he started adopting the other widowers in my little hometown, and he would have dinner, and bring them over. And I think this is actually one way that he coped, by recognizing a weight other people are having this experience, and maybe aren’t even adapting as well as I am. And, you know, cooking is something I could do.
And so, my Dad was not a great cook, I’m not afraid to say, but there was always plenty of food, right? And so doing that, where you reach out, I think he learned that in helping others he was helping himself too. I hadn’t thought of that.
And then it’s the “universal aspect”. It’s not just that I’m having grief. It’s that these other guys, other human beings, have grief. And in that moment of feeling so isolated, sometimes that can give a moment of connection. Ah, you are going through your own version of this. And I recognize it.
Yeah, to know that our simulation and our feelings that are going on in our brain, of what reality is, that there are other realities that are just like ours, because it can be very isolating otherwise. And in service, of inviting the other widowers in, comes healing.
You mentioned, and we talked about it a little bit early on, in your research, you also looked at not just the mind and the impact on the brain, but the impact on the body, and that there is that mind-body connection. If we don’t get the grief healing process right, there’s short term impacts and long term impacts on the body. Talk about that a little bit and what the research showed
Mary Frances, 22:56
I want to back up just a tiny bit and say, it isn’t, even if the grief processing isn’t going right, I would just say grieving is really stressful. Even if you do everything perfectly. Simply losing a person to whom you are bonded. That in and of itself, research shows is impactful,
Just the separation of bonded individuals, leads to increases in Cortisol. That’s stressful, right. And so this is part of why you can’t sleep. It’s why you have no appetite. It’s not something you’re doing wrong. It’s simply the reaction to losing a bonded loved one, right.
But as with all things in grieving, we can learn a little bit more and to adapt to that. So for example, doing things that help us to relax, because you can think of the grief as being a stressor, It often increases people’s blood pressure for a while.
And so thinking about things that you can do that are physically relaxing. For some people, that’s going to be going for a walk. For some people that’s going to be taking a hot bath. For other people, they learn something called progressive muscle relaxation, which is a way of actively relaxing individual muscles. And research has shown that can be helpful, that grief isn’t just happening to my mind, it’s happening to my body. And thinking about this can help us to come up with new strategies.
As well, even before the death of a loved one, there’s often a period, not always, but often a period of caregiving where all the attention has rightly been on the person who was dying. But what this often means is people have been neglecting their own health when they’re doing the caregiving, right. So how long has it been since you went for your annual exam? When did you get your teeth cleaning last. Have you had your colonoscopy? So after the death of a loved one, even though we don’t feel like it, this can be something that you can ask for support. “I know I should go to the dentist, but I have no interest in doing this. Will you drive me? Or will you remind me in a week that I said I would make my doctor’s appointment?”. So these are things we can reach out for and get help in healing our own physical body?
It is time to start instituting that self care, because you’ve been giving so much in the caregiving and in post grief, probably making sure everyone else in the house has been good. And Mary Frances, a lot of times men are very stoic through the process. I know, for me, I wanted to put on that strong face for everyone, that strong mask that we put on to let everyone know, “Okay, it’s gonna be alright, and you could rely on me, I’m a rock”, I think we tend to then not give that self care. Right. And it is an avoidance mechanism.
Mary Frances 26:30
Yes, it is. And you know, what’s ironic, there’s research that shows when particularly men are trying to be the rock. There’s this ironic thing that happens, which is that the very people you’re trying to support, because they don’t see your expression of grief, they either assume that it’s not affecting you, which is of course, not at all the case. Or they assume they also shouldn’t share their grief with you.
And so it ends up pushing you further and further apart. So if there are ways that you can bear to say, even just, “boy, I’m feeling a lot today, I don’t really want to break down right now. But I want you to know that there’s a lot going on inside”. Even just saying that can be all you need to do.
I found that in sharing my vulnerability, how much other people would share their own issues.
Mary Frances, this was a big mistake I made with my girls. They did not see me caring, they saw me go off to work, like nothing ever happened. And being very stoic. for them. It was purposeful. But it wasn’t what they needed. They needed to see that I really cared. And honestly, until I started doing some of the work with Growth through Grief and the podcast and sharing openly how much it impacted me. I don’t think they got it.
Mary Frances 28:01
Absolutely, I think we have to remember, especially when there’s kids around in our world, that we’re also the role model for “You can feel things and it will hurt you”.
You are gonna have waves of grief. And they’re gonna recede, and seeing someone else do that, seeing someone else break down in tears. And then 10 minutes later, 20 minutes later, you’re telling a funny story about “when mom did this”, learning that strong emotions, they sort of come in waves and sharing the experience teaches people: “Oh, wait, that’s probably true for me, it’s okay to go into my feelings because I will come out the other side”.
And I found that with men, if you’re sharing openly, and you are the vulnerable one, it’s amazing how other men will share back with you. So spot on.
What was the most surprising thing that you found in the research?
Mary Frances 29:04
I think the most surprising thing which has really helped me to understand grieving, because of the research that we’ve done, is understanding that your brain can pay attention to two streams of information at the same time. And this helps to explain some of the behaviors that we do.
That seems so weird, right? So on the one hand, you have a memory, the reality, we’re either at the bedside, or you got the phone call, or you’re at the funeral. So you know that this person has died. And there’s memory systems right in your brain that are holding that reality.
But what’s interesting is when we bond with a loved one, when you fall in love with your partner, you fall in love with your baby. That changes our neurobiology. And those changes of neurobiology include this deep seated belief which is I will always be there for you and we’ll always be there for me. Now, what that means is someone doesn’t have to be in your presence for you to know that they are out there. And that you are going to work to come back together again. How could you go to work every day, otherwise, if you didn’t have this deep belief?
Well, the problem is, these can’t both be true, it can’t both be true that the person is out there somewhere, and also that they have died. But your brain doesn’t know how to put these together for a long time. And this is why we do things like picking up the phone,picking up the phone to call them and tell them “Something’s happened”. And then remembering they’ve died. “I know, this sounds crazy, but I just feel like they’re gonna walk through the door again”. This is natural. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not crazy. Your brain is just trying to figure out how to make these two different, really important pieces of information fit together.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our widowers, our growth warriors with today, Mary Frances.
Mary Frances 31:10
Growth Warriors is such a good term because it does take so much courage.
I think the thing I would leave people with is you’re doing a good job. You’re doing better than you think, in an impossible situation. Yeah. And so if you can believe that, it helps you to feel like all the efforts you’re making, because I know you are making effort, all of that effort is working. It takes a long time, but it is working.
Thank you so much, Mary Frances, she’s the author of The Grieving Brain: the Surprising Science of How we Learn from Love, and is available on Amazon and local bookstores.
So I highly encourage everyone to get this book, I’ve got the link to the book in our resources. I’ll include that link in the notes.
Mary Frances, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I love research. Please keep doing that. I think there’s still a lot more to learn. I think you would admit to that as well. And it’s so amazing that modern science lets us do the imaging and do some of the mapping and responses and everything else. So I’ll be looking for more great work from you. And I look forward to maybe having you back on the show again soon.
Mary Frances 32:43
I’d love that Thomas, and thank you for bringing this conversation to people. It’s such an important conversation.