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Ten Tricks Your Brain Plays on You During Grief

Ten Tricks Your Brain Plays on You During Grief

Your brain—what an amazing organ. It can outthink the most complex computer. It is—well—it’s who you are. Your brain—or you—is reading these words and taking in information in microseconds. So, with all its wondrous abilities, why would your brain trick you, especially at a time when you need it most? Because it’s not perfect. However, don’t let your brain (or you) take it personally. Just keep reading and you’ll begin to recognize how these brain imperfections can influence you during the most difficult time of your life.

Trick #1: I will feel this way forever.

When the death occurred, you absolutely believed that you would never laugh again; but you did. Do you remember that first time? Were you surprised when you heard laughter and realized that it was coming from you? After you recovered from the shock, you may have chastised yourself for “forgetting” your loved one. As time has gone by, however, you have hopefully begun to realize that your loved one would want laughter to return.

Trick #2: Guilt
Perhaps the cruelest trick your brain plays on you is one where the past continues to be rewritten. Just look at all the ways that guilt can complicate your grief. See if any of these sound familiar:
If-Only Guilt—After the death you find yourself revisiting events in the life of your loved one in which you say, “If only….” Or “I should have…..” or “Why didn’t I?”
Role Guilt—“I wasn’t a good enough __________________ to this person.” We’re still waiting for the perfect (choose one) parent/spouse/sibling/grandparent/child.
Death Causation Guilt—The death occurred because of something I did or failed to do. It matters little whether I actually had anything to do with the death. I still feel guilty.

Trick #3: I’m not like those people who use clichés.
If you’re like most bereaved people you’ve heard so-called words of wisdom and comfort from those folks who think they are somehow helping: Everything happens for a reason, I know just how you feel, and It’s time to move one. No doubt these feeble attempts at soothing your pain have caused you some degree of frustration as you say to yourself, “What is wrong with these people? Don’t they get it?” However, your brain has deceived you again. Why? Because weren’t these some of the same statements you offered to others in grief before you knew better? How quickly our brain “forgets” that we, too, used to be a member of the insensitive crowd.

Trick #4: I need to grieve just right.
This trick is often played on those of us who have issues with perfectionism. The death you’ve experienced is like no other. Therefore the grief reactions you’ve been experiencing have thrust you into a world that is foreign to you—into a confusing array of emotions and thoughts swirling around in your brain. As these reactions continue, another part of your brain is asking, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so___________?” Following the death of a loved one you’ll never hear someone say, “You know, I’m grieving just right.” Instead you hear, “I’m not crying enough.” Or “I’m crying too much.” Or “I should be more angry.” Why these reactions? It’s just your struggling brain doing the best it can.

Trick #5: The second year will somehow be easier.
Another trick your brain will play on you is that it will convince you that nothing can be worse than going through each day of the first year—the first birthday, the first holiday, the first mothers day or fathers day, the first Thanksgiving, the first anniversary. All these firsts without our loved one add up to a great deal of pain. For many of us, once the first year is over, our brain conjures yet another deceptive scheme by offering convincing guidance, “Whew! I’ve made it through one whole year. As difficult as it was, I made it through each day. Year two should be better.” Better? Well, maybe for some people. But if you are like many people you discovered that your brain lied. You found that, in some ways the second year was more difficult. Why? Because much of the first-year shock had worn off and now the pain is raw.

Trick #6: My grief is worse than anyone else’s.
At first, as you came across other people who had a loss different from yours it may have been easy for your brain to come up with the belief that went something like this: “Yes, these people are also in pain. But their loss is not like mine. Their pain cannot be as intense, as deep, and long lasting as mine.” When you began to meet people who had a similar loss, your brain may have concluded, “Their loss is terrible, but they must not have loved their person as much as I love mine.” Later, as you look back, you may have realized that the pain you were going through made it difficult to really feel the depth of grief and despair experienced by others as they coped with their own loss. You now realize that, while you can never measure the amount of another’s pain, you have come to understand that, in our humanness, we are all united by our grief because it demonstrates that we all have loved.

Trick #7: Grief feels like going crazy.

Because the death of a precious loved one is so foreign to any experience we’ve ever had, our poor brain sudden- ly finds itself in a world of chaos. The coping techniques we’ve used with past negative events just don’t work as well when it comes to grief. Therefore, our brain can only come to one conclusion: You are going crazy. It certainly feels that way. However, if you were really going crazy, you wouldn’t have had a funeral, you wouldn’t cry, you wouldn’t have memory problems or feel anger or guilt. You would go through each day behaving as if the death never occurred. Instead you absolutely feel that you are going crazy because you do experience all these things in ways you’ve never experienced before. A mother whose 20 year-old son died in an auto accident explained her grief to me by saying: “Grief is unfinished love.” Yes, you feel like you’re going crazy because you have loved and will continue to love until you die.

Trick #8: Relatives who haven’t spoken to one another will put aside their differences because of this death
When the death hit you and your family, your brain might have concluded, “The tragedy and finality of this death in our family will surely bring people together. Family members will awaken to the fact that life is too short to hold grudges, to persist in silent indifference to the feelings of others, and to withhold forgiveness.” However, you have sadly realized again that your brain was wrong.

Trick #9: I will get a little better each day.

In the past, when other negative events occurred in your life, you may have found that, day after day, things did get a little better. In the case of grief, you almost cannot blame your brain for coming up with a similar belief. However, you may have discovered that day 90 following the death was worse than day 30 and that you may have felt worse at the ten month point than you did at the five month point. Why is this? One reason is shock, which is your brain’s way of cushioning the intensity of the blow. Whether death is sudden or expected, our brain goes into shock for a period of time. The length is different for everyone. As you know, when shock begins to wear off, the pain begins to set in. This is one of the major reasons that, when people look back on the weeks and months following a death, they report that it was like they were in a fog, like they were going through the motions much like a robot. People use terms like, “I was on automatic pilot.” Or “I was a zombie.” Shock is your brain trying to protect itself (you) from the full impact of the pain.

Trick #10: Letting go of my grief means letting go of my loved one.
This brain maneuver is one of the biggest challenges in coping with grief. If you could actually hear your brain speaking to you, the words would sound something like this: “Now that some time has gone by I can feel that the intensity of my loss easing up just a little. But wait! I can’t let this happen because if the pain begins to leave, the memories of my loved one will slip away as well. So, I must hold on to my sorrow, heartache, and anguish in order to preserve the connection with this person.” This brain tactic is related to a type of guilt called, Moving On Guilt in which guilt feelings surface at the moment the bereaved person begins to feel a little better. As you know, an important part of your grief work is to hold on to the memories while simultaneously letting the pain of the loss gradually subside.

So, there they are: ten tricks of the brain that complicate the bereavement process. Some you knew already and found yourself nodding your head. A couple of them may have been new to you as you have come to realize that the death of your loved one has challenged your brain in ways it has never experienced before. In considering these tricks, you will now hopefully be a little kinder to your brain as it continues to cope with loss of someone you love.


Reprinted from Grief Digest magazine, May, 2014 article by Bob Baugher Ph.D

Dr. Bob Baugher is a psychology instructor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, where he teaches courses in Psychology, Death Education, Human Relations, and Suicide Intervention.

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