Maybe it’s my age, but suddenly, grief seems to be everywhere. So many friends have spent recent years trying to process the life-altering loss of a parent. Others (like me) are slowly coming to terms with the unexpected death of cherished pals. Then there’s Covid, which has forced us all to be present with grief – from everyday discussions about death tolls to mourning the aspects of our pre-pandemic lives that we miss.
I’m slowly beginning to understand how much grief changes you, both in an immediate and enduring sense. There’s your experience of loss and the pain itself, and then there’s how it shifts your perspective about your journey through life.
So much more can be said about the experience of losing a loved one than I could ever begin to express in a blog post. Grief can often feel like an uncomfortable subject – and a pretty comprehensive one too. However, grief can also feel isolating, especially in the long term, as life keeps going, but you’re still trying to understand it. So, I decided to write about one aspect of grief on my mind because I think we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.
I want to explore how grief changes you physically and psychologically in the short and long term. Although, it’s important to say that when it comes to grief, ‘short term’ appears to be anything from a few weeks to a few years – and that is ok. We shouldn’t expect people to rush their grieving process because it’s impossible.
If you found your way here because you have experienced loss, my heart goes out to you. I’ve added a list of resources below that my friends and I have found helpful. Please feel free to share any that you recommend in the comments.
Often, when we talk about grief, it’s about the idea of ‘stages’ (such as denial, anger and acceptance) or symptoms (shock, guilt and pain) that we can experience after a bereavement. But what happens to us neurologically when we grieve? And are any of these changes permanent?
The emotional trauma of loss results in serious changes in brain function that endure.
Lisa M. Shulman, MD
Our brain’s immediate response to loss is to release a mixture of hormones and chemicals similar to our stress response when we experience ‘flight, fight, freeze or fawn’ – except we are now flooded with these repeatedly. Every brief reminder of the loss triggers this stress response, which can cause some physical and emotionally draining symptoms, such as loss of appetite, anxiety, disturbed sleep and a general sense of fatigue.
As your brain continues to take hit after hit of this shock response, it remodels itself through a process called neuroplasticity. Your brain goes into a temporary auto-pilot to handle this sudden need to rewire itself, letting our limbic system take over. This shift means as we try and process what has happened, we’re mainly functioning on survival instincts, while our prefrontal cortex, which handles our self-control and decision-making processes, is temporarily out of action.
Meanwhile, your brain is also trying to handle overwhelming grief-related thoughts and emotions. So, it begins to manage this flow, rapidly attempting to minimise what we perceive and remember, both from past and present. According to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, our brain switching to this super-filtration mode when we experience grief can enhance our anxiety and make us unable to think straight.
I realised that the problem wasn’t sorrow; it was a fog of confusion, disorientation, and delusions of magical thinking.
Lisa M. Shulman, MD
Shulman looked to research for insights into how grief changes you following the death of her husband. She discovered that slowly trying to reconnect with the memories we may have ‘filtered out’ or suppressed was vital to helping our brain overcome this emotional trauma.
Tools such as journaling, meditation and counselling can help us face the emotions and memories our brain may have previously tried to protect us from, slowly easing its need to be in a stress-response mode. So, in a sense, looking back helps our brain move forward.
How grief changes the way you view life
It made me live in the moment. It made me prepare for the future.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating how grief changes you in the long term but haven’t yet come across a book or study that captures this transition for me. So, I recently reached out to my friends to see if and how they have been transformed by grief, and their insightful responses moved me. I’ve shared quotes from some of them throughout this section of the blog.
Personally, it was only a couple of weeks after the funeral of our dear friend Gordon when my ex and I decided to bring our relationship to an end. We’d been holding things together for a while, and with hindsight, it seems evident that the sudden death of one of our most vibrant friends woke us up to the fact that life is indeed very short. After all, what is the point of soldiering on through unhappiness when life could be all over tomorrow?
It’s interesting how much society only prepares us to live till old age. We’re encouraged to put the pieces in place (marriage, mortgage, pension, children) that will supposedly guarantee everyone a sense of fulfilment in later life. We rarely talk about death other than something that comes in our eighties or nineties. I think this has made the shock of losing friends in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties over the past few years so intense. I was entirely unprepared for the fact that people my age can (and do) die.
It’s a reset. It’s changed and informed everything I’ve done since.
I often think about how differently we would all live our lives if we had more awareness of our mortality. Suppose we were to approach our lives conscious that the week, year and decade are never guaranteed. Would it change the way we love each other? The way we treat strangers? The planet? Our jobs? Would we be braver? More reckless or at ease? Would it increase our anxiety? Or is our social discomfort with discussions of death behind our ever-growing unease?
The reason I think about these things is because of grief. Here’s how it has changed me. I used to be obsessed with buying a house, pouring a sizeable part of my income into a pension, and having a career that would make all of this possible. Then, slowly, grief shifted my priorities. I stopped projecting my hopes for my life decades into the future and started paying attention to where I was and where I hoped to be in the coming weeks and months.
Of course, it feels exceptionally insensitive to describe grief as having a positive impact on your life, and if you have recently lost someone, I understand how that can feel very hard to hear. I wish that all my friends were still alive. That I could hug them, talk to them, dance with them, gossip with them, and travel with them once again. However, over time I have also come to appreciate the impact that losing them has had on how I understand my journey. How it has made me approach life differently because they are no longer with me.
When I recently talked to others about this, one friend told me how grief has made them a better person. That they were a bit of an asshole until it hit them, and now they are much more compassionate. Others have found that it has enhanced their delight to see friends and family have new babies and watch nieces and nephews grow up. It made them realise how we need to find joy in life’s journey as well as the pain.
It has made me more insecure about my connections with people who love me. Like I crave it much more than before, but it seems like it can never be satisfied.
It’s no surprise to anyone who has lost a loved one that grief alters you to a seismic extent, and of course, the ways that it changes you aren’t necessarily positive. Feeling scared of losing more loved ones is a pretty common fear. We suddenly understand that people can disappear from our lives instantly and how much that can hurt, so we become terrified of losing others. It can also make it harder to enjoy happy times without loved ones you feel should have been there, or you can feel bad for simply being happy even though they are gone.
There is no getting over or recovering from grief. It slowly becomes a part of the fabric of your everyday life, now woven in an unalterably different way. We are forever changed by it, and I feel like my life will be a continual process of coming to understand this. Everyone’s experience of grief is different, but perhaps this is something that some of you feel too.
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