Easter weekend is almost upon us. Most children are off of school, parents are taking a “vacation” from work, the weather is getting warmer. What would normally be a quiet mid afternoon jaunt to the grocery story for me (because no one goes on a work day in the middle of the day) was jam packed with people, kids running around, families getting Easter goodies. “Oh yeah, everyone is off this week,” my brain reminded me.
As I made my way to a cashier, I put my few measly items (literally less than 8 and still cost over $80!) on the conveyer belt and watched as they slowly moved forward. The woman in front of me looked back and took stock of my items. Her daughter in front of her was learning how to pay for groceries; a “teaching” moment as mom explained what she had to do and how she balances what’s left on her card. She looked back again and gave me a meek half smile. Suddenly it dawned on me as I looked over my items; it looked like a shopping trip for a single person–for someone who lives alone. I watched as my items made it to the front and my stomach had a small sad knot in it. In 2.5 years that Mike has been gone, I’ve never really taken stock of the perception by others of when I do things like grocery shopping. “Ahhh, now that woman’s half smile makes sense. She knew–or at least half knew,” I tell myself. I don’t even have my hands full with kids bouncing around or buying “kid friendly” items. I can’t even pretend I have a house full of people.
It’s amazing what you can glean from someone’s food items.
As a previous social worker, I started to recall my training (before writing). When your partner dies or leaves you, your brain struggles to absorb or understand their absence. Why? Because the bond you shared had been encoded as “everlasting”. My circumstance at the grocery store triggering research I’ve read but had dismissed.
It may be surprising, but recent research in neuroscience has put a spotlight on information about our relationships and what happens in our brains when we grieve for a loved one who is dead. Particularly if this loss is devastating and changes everything within our immediate living arrangements and life structure. Such as, when a devoted spouse dies, or if it’s sudden, or if they are young. Our grieving brain, which had already wired in the everlasting bond with them, now has an enormous rewiring job to do. Our most important bonds are permanently and deeply encoded in the brain, which develops the implicit knowledge that certain people are special to us and will always be with us. This encoding happens during intimate, intense, loving moments. I know–neuroscience isn’t what springs to mind when we think about grieving.
To keep track of our relationships, our brains create neural maps from the day we are born. It’s how we know who we can trust, rely on, who loves us, and who will be there. It’s also how we develop routines and familiarity. The neural map for a marriage or long-term partnership contains detailed information about the beloved, the relationship, and life together. Our brains acquire and retain this information through lived experience. When you and your partner have been closely connected for a long time (as Mike and I were for 20 years), your brain has acquired a lot of lived experience and maintains a comprehensive neural map, which it uses to predict and make sense of what’s going on in each moment of life.
For example, right before you wake up in the morning, your brain hears someone breathing, you feel a body or a lump in the bed, and instantly know it’s your partner lying next to you before your eyes even open. As you begin your day, you know the routine and your brain knows before your heart does when your partner will return home each day. When they die, your grieving brain must learn to make sense of their absence and redraw its neural map to reflect this new reality. Particularly if you expected and counted on spending many more years together.
“The brain struggles to reconcile two opposing pieces of knowledge—the conscious knowledge that they are gone, and the powerful, implicit knowledge that they are everlasting. This struggle explains some of the more bewildering and crazy-feeling aspects of grieving,” according to a neuroscience article in Science Friday.
So let’s put this together with what we know of grieving. Our hearts ache, we have formed a routine, attachments, an everlasting bond, and the brain has absorbed this information to write our partner into our lives. When we think about the craziness of grieving, why it is so complex, so muddled with different emotions, vulnerabilities and heartache, or even the concept of “widow(er) brain fog”, it actually makes sense. Our brains are trying to rewire, redefine our neural maps to add in this new information. Our brains need to rewrite our neural code now that our partner is dead!
Let’s say you’ve been with someone for eight years, it would make sense that you will need more than six months to one year to adjust to life without that person by your side.
Now again, every heart is different, and every relationship and intensity of that relationship is different. But I do find some comfort in the struggles of healing when I begin to understand the job my brain needs to do to work out the fact that Mike is no longer here. Mike is everlasting, he will always be in my heart, but my brain is trying to work out that I now live alone, without him and that the entire structure of our life together is no more. That doesn’t happen over night. There truly is a weird sense of comfort in that. It just makes the grieving side of me feel–well more “sane.”
Grieving is a journey, and if our brains are trying to rewrite a new journey for us, now that a piece of that journey has ended, then this gives grieving a whole new meaning. Our brains are grieving too! It also offers some peace.
I find it ironic that this is part of grieving, a part of my “new” journey as my career is now very focused on a brain cancer/grief and loss podcast, and brain cancer patient advocacy and public speaking. (I am still writing–and yes book 2 of the LeFay Series is on its way. Stay tuned.) Whatever the journey, we are protected in so many ways. We can all get through this. Don’t ever stop believing that.
May you hold grace, guidance, and gratitude help you on your healing journey.