Bereavement Science

“Science is, at least in part, informed worship.”  Carl Sagan

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In my book A Beautiful Mourning, I wrote that grieving is not a time of reason but a time of intense emotions.  I speculated that a neuroscientist would most likely explain it in terms of a shift from higher-level cognitive functions in the cerebral cortex to the primitive emotions of the limbic system.  Since writing that statement, I’ve had the good fortune to read exactly what the neuroscientists do have to say and—in the spirit of “informed worship”—I would like to share some of these findings now.

The first thing that I have learned is what an erroneous notion that I—along with most of the modern world—have about emotions being “primitive.”  Pioneering researcher, Paul Ekman, has shown us that far from being “a primitive annoyance” and “a vestige of our ancient animal brain” that needs to be controlled; emotions are varied, complex—and above all useful.

Our ability to understand and recognize different emotions is something that unites all humans in our great evolutionary tree.  Contemplating the role of emotions themselves is a fascinating pursuit in itself.  Although it may seem ridiculously obvious the fact that we feel emotions are one of their most unique characteristics.  We feel, as opposed to think about our emotions.

Instead of having one thought amongst many, our strong feelings get our attention in a novel—and ultimately very helpful way.  For example, when we feel anger it actually has a highly recognizable physiological profile:  Our heart beats faster, our muscles tense, our nostrils flare to take in more oxygen, and we focus our thoughts and consolidate our internal resources to respond to a threat (be this real or imagined.) Feelings are, in fact, a remarkably advanced part of nature’s design.   And not only do feelings help us gain valuable information about our world, they also inform others.  This fact, that we show our emotions, through facial expressions has been the hallmark of Ekman’s groundbreaking research.

Bereavement researcher, Dr. George Bonanno, was influenced by Ekman’s work and viewed the role of sadness in a similar way—he looked for its value.  It turns out that sadness has many specific and useful properties.   First of all, it alerts others to the fact that we may be in need of help and understanding.  In his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, he says that during bereavement we can “temporarily forget about our immediate needs and responsibilities to those around us.”  Fortunately, sadness has a built-in safety mechanism.

During sadness our “face literally sags” and “our eyebrows pinch together and raise upward forming a triangle; the eyelids narrow, the jaw slackens, and the lower lip is drawn out and down to form a kind of pout.”   So whether we are aware of it or not, nature has created a compelling message to others that we are in need of their help.  And think about it, isn’t the practice of bringing over a covered dish one of the most traditional responses to a death in the family?  Why is this?  Because the bereaved person is usually too preoccupied with their grief to prepare their own food or even remember to eat.

After studying the role of sadness in depth for many years, Bonanno has come to understand the role of sadness this way:  It gives us a forced time-out.  During bereavement we are trying to adjust to the loss in our life.  It turns out that sadness is one of nature’s essential tools to help us do this.  He describes it as being almost the opposite of anger, “Whereas anger prepares us to fight, sadness dampens our biological systems.”  Sadness slows us down so that we are able to put aside our everyday concerns and turn our attention inward. In fact, many people report the feeling of loss as one of living in slow motion.

Riding the Wave

Viewed through the lens of a scientist, bereavement is essentially a stress reaction.  A stress reaction is anything that is perceived as a threat to our well-being.  And certainly losing anyone—who is the most and dear to our heart—does challenge our sense of wellbeing.  Bonanno’s team of researchers at Columbia University found that just like any other stress response grief is not uniform or static.

Like my perception of being hit with a tsunami wave (that I discuss in A Beautiful Mourning), Bonanno’s team confirmed that grief does come in a wave-like pattern where we oscillate between “loss orientation” and a “restoration orientation.”  In loss orientation we focus on our loss and in restoration orientation we focus on our life and on what needs to be done to return to normal functioning again.

Bonanno is not surprised about his research findings.  He observes that this “same kind of back-and-forth fluctuation is apparent in just about every other mind and body function we know.”  He cites numerous examples; we breathe in and we breathe out, our body temperature rises and falls, our muscles tighten and our muscles relax, we become alert and we rest, and even in sleep itself we cycle through periods of lighter and deeper sleep.

Bonanno discovered the deep wisdom in nature’s design:  Relentless grief would be overwhelming.  Grief is tolerable only because it comes in this wave-like oscillation where we are allowed—and designed—to move back and forth emotionally. He concluded that we can’t reflect on the reality of a loss and engage with the world around us at the same time so the fact that we do it in cycles makes perfect sense.


From “Beyond Kubler-Ross: New Perspectives on Death, Dying, and Grief” presented by the Hospice Foundation of America

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Rene Bro

We need to acknowledge the contributions of the pioneer Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  Kubler-Ross taught us critical lessons–about the importance of listening to the dying person and the need to humanize care of the dying person, launching a national conversation about death and dying.  That legacy needs to be preserved.  Yet we need to reevaluate Kubler-Ross’ stage theory.  Stage theories have a certain attraction–they bring a sense of conceptual order to a chaotic process.  However, evidence does not support the concept of universal stages [Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance] positing instead individual pathways…. There is a danger with any model when the model becomes prescriptive.  Patients need not accept death nor die by any set of preordained criteria.

Grief is a natural, normal reaction to loss.  While grief reactions are universal, they are shaped by culture and individually experienced and expressed…. It is critical for bereavement workers to expand their concepts of the variability of normal grief and to not impose any particular pattern on any individual.


Grief can surprise you with its power, its unpredictable timing, its fathomless depth, its transformational potential, and the scope of change it brings into your life.  We discover that grief has its own nature, rhythm, and timing; it resists our attempt to control it.  We also discover that grief involves more ongoing changes in our lives than we could have ever imagined.  It reaches into every part of our lives–our family, relationships, work, health, sleep, emotions, and sense of identity.  No part of our lives is left untouched…. Feelings come in waves, arising out of our depths and bowling us over with their intensity.  There are periods of calm, even peace.  Conflicting feelings can arise simultaneously.  We never know what to expect.

Alexandra Kennedy


Human tears contain a unique combination of chemicals, including:  Manganese, Encephalin (a hormone with properties that include a pain-killing substance which the body produces in the brain after heavy exercise), and Prolactin (a hormone that helps nursing mother’s produce mother’s milk.)  When tears are absorbed into the nasal cavity during crying, they carry the endorphins to the brain, often allowing someone to feel better because they’ve had a “good cry.”

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From Crying: the Mystery of Tears by William Frey


Ungrieved losses take a toll on our hearts. We shut down–from life, from one another, from ourselves.  The grief remains buried in the psyche and body; it affects our relationships and compromises our aliveness.  At some later time, when we least expect it, the grief erupts.  Many of us have current problems rooted in the death or loss of a loved one that was never grieved.  Almost all of us carry some degree of unresolved, unhealed grief that congests our hearts.
Unresolved grief can show up in such symptoms as;

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  • chronic physical ailments
  • fearfulness
  • depression
  • overworking
  • addiction
  • social isolation
  • compulsive behavior

Alexandra Kennedy MA LMFT


Seven Tasks of Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

  • Experience and express all the feelings over your loss.
  • Let the nonnegotiable and excruciating reality sink in that you will never again be in the physical presence of your loved one.
  • Review your relationship from the beginning and see both the positive and negative aspects of the person and the relationship.
  • Identify and address your unresolved issues and regrets.
  • Explore the changes in your family and other relationships.
  • Nurture an inner relationship with your loved one and use your imagination to tap opportunities for healing, resolution, and guidance.
  • Integrate all these changes into a new sense of yourself and take on healthy ways of being in the world without this person.

From Honoring Grief by Alexandra Kennedy, MA, LMFT


Common Physical Symptoms of Grief

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Tightness in the throat (feeling a lump)

Dry Mouth

Tightness in the Chest

Shortness of Breath

Inertia

Oversensitivity to noise

Lack of appetite (or other digestive problems)

Sense of unreality

Sleep disturbances

Brain fog and inability to concentrate

Muscle tremors

Muscle weakness and fatigue

Mood swings

Lack of motivation

From the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (Hospice of the Central Coast)


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Pablo Picasso

The truth about our childhood [or grieving] is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it.  Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication.  But someday the body will present its bill, for it is incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.

Alice Miller


As an integral part of the natural world, it’s high time we learn to revere all phases of the cycle of life.  Given our slant in this culture, I have no doubt that you celebrate births and the good parts of life easily.  Now it’s time to lift the filters we’ve put into place to avoid seeing death and decay….

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I’m not asking you to love or even like death, but to revere it–to honor it.  Loss, in any form, is hard–and always will be–but when loss is seen in the context of the cycle of life, it has poignancy that can soften the despair….  Unhealed traumas don’t disappear; they fester like wounds that haven’t been properly tended.  Eventually–whether it’s weeks, months, or even decades later–we must acknowledge our losses and face the truth about the situations that caused us pain in the first place.

Dr. Carol McClelland Fields


“…sorrow carves riverbeds in our soul, deepening us as it flows in and out of our lives. There is something familiar about the rising and falling of loss, how it takes us below the surface of our lives and works on us in some alchemical way. We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful and unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life.”

Francis Weller


“When after heavy rain the storm clouds disperse, is it not that they’ve wept themselves clear to the end?”

~Ghalib

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Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve.

It takes courage to grieve, to honor the pain we carry. We can grieve in tears or in meditative silence, in prayer or in song. In touching the pain of recent and long-held griefs, we come face to face with our genuine human vulnerability, with helplessness and hopelessness. These are the storm clouds of the heart.

Most traditional societies offer ritual and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.

To meditate on grief, let yourself sit, alone or with a comforting friend. Take the time to create an atmosphere of support. When you are ready, begin by sensing your breath. Feel your breathing in the area of your chest. This can help you become present to what is within you. Take one hand and hold is gently on your heart as if you were holding a vulnerable human being. You are.

As you continue to breathe, bring to mind the loss or pain you are grieving. Let the story, the images, the feelings comes naturally. Hold them gently. Take your time. Let the feelings come layer by layer, a little at a time.

Keep breathing softly, compassionately. Let whatever feelings are there, pain and tears, anger and love, fear and sorrow, come as they will. Touch them gently. Let them unravel out of your body and mind. Make space for any images that arise. Allow the whole story. Breathe and hold it all with tenderness and compassion. Kindness for it all, for you and for others.

The grief we carry is part of the grief of the world. Hold it gently. Let it be honored. You do not have to keep it in anymore. You can let it go into the heart of compassion; you can weep.

Releasing the grief we carry is a long, tear-filled process. Yet it follows the natural intelligence of the body and heart. Trust it, trust the unfolding. Along with meditation, some of your grief will want to be written, to be cried out, to be sung, to be danced. Let the timeless wisdom within you carry you through grief to an open heart.

 The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace