By Galen Lastko,
The experience of loss is an inevitable yet irreconcilable part of the human experience. We are taught from an early age that all things must pass, and even a cursory glance around the planet readily confirms our suspicions. Still, the processing of grief or bereavement is not an optional emotional experience, and while we can’t intellectualize our way out of the emotional work, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to process deep loss.
The body’s response to pain is similar whether the cause is physical or emotional
The evolution of grief is a curious tale, as there is, on the surface at least, little tangible benefit to it. It may be related to survival by compelling social organisms to reunite when they become separated. By this same measure, the traumatic memories formed by grief may help to keep organisms from repeating mistakes that resulted in the loss of companions or offspring. For humans, our faculty for language allows us to conceptualize and explain the idea of loss before it happens, but that doesn’t prevent our biology from having a process all its own. The body’s response to pain is similar whether the cause is physical or emotional, and that response may often feel like we’re sitting in the passenger seat while we wait for our hearts to catch up with our brains.
Stages of grief
Grief is most often experienced after the death or loss of a family member or close friend. It is often described in terms of stages which are progressed as the grieving person comes to terms with their experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages originally described what a dying person goes through – not a grieving person. While common usage has associated these five stages with the process of grief, there is little evidence for a consistent pattern or sequence of experiences. Death is the most common and widely accepted cause of grief, but it can also be triggered by loss or alienation from a job, living situation, social group, or romantic partner. It can occur when a friend or family member goes through dramatic life changes, or even in anticipation of someone’s death, in some cases.
Grief in the body
Perhaps part of why we can’t reason our way out of grief is because many of the associated processes occur on a much more primordial level in the brain. While the stress caused by bereavement can be felt in the frontal lobe, grief can also trigger responses in the vagus nerve, which connects to our hearts, lungs, and digestive systems – in particular, the automatic functions of those systems. It’s no wonder that physical manifestations of grief often involve these very parts of the body. Furthermore, the amygdala, which is a big player in decision-making, memory, and emotional responses, is shown to be hyperactive in some grieving individuals. Just as we cannot always rationalize our way around a fear response, grief is something we experience on a deeper level than our interior dialog.
It’s important to recognize when grief begins to transform into something more serious.
That being said, most of the time grief is a process that does have a resolution. The trick is managing to take care of yourself and be patient while you wait out the storm. Writing and talking about your feelings and experiences are two of the simplest ways to work on grief, either in a professional setting or on your own with friends. It can be easy to fall into a more serious depression or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms if we don’t remind ourselves that our body is going through its own struggles. Suicidal thoughts, dysfunctionality, and substance abuse are common signs that grief has taken a more serious hold on an individual. It’s important to recognize when grief begins to transform into something more serious and to talk to your health care provider if you are even suspicious you might be spiraling down.
While our social nature as animals might be the reason we go through this pain in the first place, there may be a silver lining to all our pain. It’s been proposed that an individual expressing grief is signaling to others a propensity for forming strong relationships, thus making that expression an advantage for a tribal species like ourselves which relies on social bonds and trust. Maybe it’s one of the most human things we can do to build a fire together against the inevitable dark. After all, we’d never have made it out of the caves if we didn’t know how to lean on each other now and then.
Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.
Related: Mental Health