What Happens When We Grieve
Every person on this earth experiences tragedy and loss. Nobody is excluded from the painful feeling of grief. It is a disorienting experience. It takes away our identity and our own understanding of self.
That’s why people always say that grief lasts forever. That is absolutely not true. Grief does not last forever — only confusion and fear can last forever.
When my husband died in 2006 everyone told me that I was never to stop grieving. That time is the only healer and I was to wait. And I waited for time to heal me, but nothing happened. Time did not heal my wounds. Surprisingly, action did. I had to explain the sequence of events for myself and for the many people I help live again after loss.
There are three phases to healthy recovery after a loss.
First, we exit our old life. Our loss forces us to leave behind the life we’ve been living. The normal routines of everyday life are disrupted. Some people believe that where we end up after that push-out of the old life is the next phase of life. But unfortunately, that’s not true. In this confused and lonely state, we only end up in the space between two lives.
Second, we begin living in a gap between lives — the life we left behind and the life we have yet to enter. I like to call this space the Waiting Room. When we’re in the Waiting Room, we’re still attached to the past — which is already gone forever – even as we’re trying to figure out what the future looks like.
In this place, we struggle with our new reality, thinking that it is our new life. We are unable to see ourselves clearly and make
decisions as we used to. The brain’s ability to plan and reason is temporarily gone.
Third, we begin to experiment with our new life. This is perhaps the scariest aspect of life after loss, because so much is unknown and has been taken on faith. Little by little, we begin stepping out of the Waiting Room and entering a new reality. We start to do this early on, even though we haven’t fully landed in the new life yet.
While these three phases address life after loss, the important things to look at for recovery are what happens to the mind. The trauma of any event that slams the door shut on an aspect of the past — a divorce or a death — leaves its mark on the brain. We are left with uncertainty. We don’t yet know what life will be like. We are afraid to take action and start over. Ultimately it is not the grief that stops us from starting life over, but fear of losing that life all over again.
Before we can really begin going through the process of reentry into life, it is important to understand the relationship between fear and the brain. The amygdalae, which are almond-shaped masses of gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, help us process sensory input — to determine whether what we are experiencing is safe or dangerous. They do this by comparing what is happening in the moment to past experiences we’ve had.
If an experience is deemed safe, we react in one way; if it is deemed dangerous, we react in a different way. When the amygdalae sense a threat, they trigger the secretion of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which stimulate the fight-or-flight response, putting us fully on alert for danger.
Unfortunately, after a great loss, the world is uncertain and confusing. Everything seems like a threat because all you knew –that you were going to be with your love forever, that you were healthy, that you were safe — is now different. After loss, we perceive the entire world as dangerous because the amygdalae instantly compare new experiences with this trauma and what it meant in your life. This wears in the neutral pathways of fear, making the perception of danger easier for your brain, thus causing you to perceive danger where there isn’t actually anything to fear. This unconscious habit of fear is what keeps people stuck in grief — stuck in the Waiting Room that is the second phase of life after loss.
While you wait in the Waiting Room, you get increasingly comfortable. This is your safe place. Some Waiting Rooms are actually quite cozy after we settle into them. Metaphorically speaking, if you can imagine it, they look like living rooms with nice, big couches and flat screen TVs. You go to your Waiting Room initially to be safe while you adjust to your loss. But soon enough, your brain begins to associate stepping outside of this space as dangerous. We want to avoid pain, so the brain tries to anticipate bad situations before they happen. We stay in the Waiting Room for fear of risking future loss. Unfortunately, the longer you stay, the harder it is to start over.
All of us have to dance with our instincts to figure out when to leap and when to stay put. That’s the challenge of being human and having a brain that evolved for survival. Having gone through a devastating loss, the brain feels threatened. It does not like to have its beliefs challenged, because it uses these beliefs to guard against threats to our safety. The life that we are looking at after loss challenges the beliefs we had prior to the loss, so the brain does everything it knows how to do to fight against the emergence of the new life. Our survival instincts are so strong that we can be stuck for years.need to learn how to ignore perceived threats that come from stepping into the new life, and how to distinguish them from real threats.
You can move out of the Waiting Room by gradually learning to let goof your fear as you practice doing things that are different from your too-comfortable, self-protective routines. You have to learn to overcome your natural fear of change. This is the basis of my Life Reentry Model, and it allows you take an active and strategic role in redefining your life after loss. It makes you able to create a launch pad from which you can create the life you desire.
Living fully again after loss should be the only way forward. Grief is an inhuman experience taking place in a human body. What happens next is evolutionary. We can become fearless and driven to create the best life possible because of the losses we have had, certainly not despite them.
In my book Second Firsts: Live, Laugh, and Love Again I take the readers on a journey out of the old life and into a new one, teaching readers how to use their brains to create the life they so deserve. We have all the tools we need right within us — not just our hearts and souls, but about our brain maps, our thoughts and the words we use to create our world every single day.
Rasmussen, C. (2013). What Happens When We Grieve. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/11/05/what-happens-when-we-grieve/