This Is Your Brain on Grief
If you knew and loved one of the 500,000-plus people lost to the pandemic, here’s what might be going on in your brain right now.
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
Yesterday, the official U.S. death toll from the pandemic reached 500,000 people. Half a million husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers. Covid-19 is now the leading cause of death in the U.S., and more lives have been lost to the pandemic than to World War II and the Vietnam War combined.
Each of those 500,000 people was loved by others, leaving millions of us to grieve those lost lives. Artists, philosophers, and better writers than I will help place this loss in context and perhaps bring meaning and a kind of sharp, beautiful truth to the pain that so many are feeling right now, a pain rooted in love. What I can offer is to explain a little bit about what’s happening in your brain when someone you love dies, and I hope that sliver of science may provide a small amount of clarity and understanding about why it’s so awful and confusing.
Your brain is grieving
Psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, who specializes in grief, says that there is a difference between grief and grieving. You will likely never stop grieving the loss of your spouse; 20 years later, the sadness and yearning will still be there, but it won’t always be the overwhelming waves of pain that bring you to your knees at the beginning. Those pangs can last for months or even years, but eventually, they will start to be balanced by a resiliency and the return to a meaningful life without the person.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. You might be feeling sadness, disbelief, anger, guilt, or numbness right now, or all of the above at different times. “I think it’s useful for people to know that what they’re experiencing right now is a normal reaction,” O’Connor says. “It’s happening to way more people than it should be all at once because of the…