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The Grieving Brain: A Book Review




The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss

Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD.

Harper One: New York: 2022


“Grief is a problem for the brain to solve,” (p.5) notes Mary-Frances O’Connor of her quest to understand grief in this compelling read. The author articulates her motivation for this book as one of curiosity: Why does grief hurt so much? Why does death of a loved one result in such devastating feelings? (p. x). A neuroscientist/psychologist, she explores grief and grieving through the lens of mapping the brain changes in grieving process of the emotional, chemical, body and behavioral terrain. Informed by her research and experiences, she offers new distinctions, perspectives and practical applications to advance the understanding of the neurobiology of grief and loss in our contemporary life.


In a readable fashion, Dr. O’Connor shares the results of what she “sees” on brain MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that illuminates the experience of the griever. As a foundation, she presents three main dimensions that frame how the brain responds to the loss: a) here (place) is the evolutionary need for sustenance (survival/safety?); Where does that exist for us? b) time is the element of when: when does this happen? and c) closeness: What is our attachment to the loss? This mapping process changes as the brain seeks predictability in these dimensions disrupted by the loss. Building on these as a foundation, the author explores the emotional and behavioral responses/behaviors (anger, denial, magical thinking, memories, insomnia, rumination, depression) that emerge as the brain seeks resolution. Common experiences of grieving are then linked to brain functions which helps the reader understand the fundamental question: Why does it take so long? “Time does not heal but rather experience heals over time.” (p. 173).


The author notes this magnificent brain is capable of a dual process of reconciliation between what was and what is. This is a critical aspect of the healing into the present and future. The Dual Process Model of Coping in Bereavement (Stroebe and Schur, 1999) cited by the author, is an example to support this phenomenon. (p. 76). More than a third of the book is about transitioning to what this new understanding, learning and experience teaches us. Anecdotes, stories and examples bring alive the human experience to generate tangible and easily relatable experiences that enrich our understanding. How might knowing grief and grieving help us be with the process, let the brain do its work? Can we accept we can’t go any faster than this protective machine allows? The primary tenet is that this experience is a learning, relearning, a process of adjusting and adapting to a new disruption and threat to our known and habitual existence.


The Grieving Brain fulfilled its intent to answer some of the “why” questions. As the author notes, this inquiry also raises many unanswered questions. These unanswered questions, gaps and limitations underscore the need for additional research. Currently, the interest in bereavement science has stimulated studies in cardiovascular disease, immune system, sleep and stress. Thus, clinicians will find material for consideration with grieving families and distinctions between a productive grieving process and clinical diagnoses. Those in bereavement will learn the protective power of the brain and the predictive plan that occurs as the brain adjusts. However, this is not a “how to” book for resolution of loss. The book’s contribution is to offer an understanding of nature of grief and grieving, it’s biological, and neurological influences. Through learning and relearning humans can achieve restoration from loss and develop a meaningful life. This is a highly recommended book for all of us as we explore loss evident in our past, present and future.


Book Review by Beth Quill, 3/12/24



Watch Mary Frances O’Connor's TED Talk on The Grieving Brain here:





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15. maj

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