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How the universal feeling of grief lights up our brain

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Posted at 9:49 AM, Mar 29, 2023

When someone we love dies, or we have an emotional loss or change, it can be all-consuming.

A woman who grew up in Dillon, and is an associate professor of psychology, wrote the book, "The Grieving Brain", about her research.

In A Kelley Conversation, MTN’s Donna Kelley spoke with Associate Professor of Psychology and Author Mary-Frances O’Connor about how the universal feeling of grief lights up our brain.

Donna: What happens to our brain when we’re hit with grief?

O'Connor: What’s surprising is that you can’t really talk about grief without talking about love. So really what happens is that when we bond with someone, we form unique connections physically in the brain. That means that when that person dies, it really is like a piece of us has also gone mission. So, it takes the brain a long time to understand this person who’s really gone.

Donna: How did you study that?

O'Connor: The way we study it is the wonderful participants who are willing to come in and do grief research. They bring us a photograph of the person who’s died, and we’re able to scan that into a computer and then show it to them on goggles when they’re lying in the neuro-imaging scanner. What that means is we can see the parts of the brain that are active when they’re looking at that photograph. I think something that I’ve found very surprising is that there’s a part of the brain that’s very important in our yearning response and yearning to have that person back. This little region is called the nucleus accumbens.

Donna: There is that old saying, 'time heals all', but it still hurts. Maybe just in a different way, no matter how long it goes on.

O'Connor: That’s exactly right. So, I think there is a difference between grief and grieving. The first time you have that wave of brief, you may think, ‘I’m not going to get through this moment’. And then the 101st time, it feels just as bad, but it is more familiar and we learn how to comfort ourselves in those moments or how to reach out for support in those moments.

Donna: I know there’s no normal process for grieving because everyone’s different, but is there a point where you start to worry about someone if they’re not functioning?

O'Connor: The part for me that gets worrying is if after more than a year, people are not able to do things that they want to in life. Getting dinner on the table, getting out to work, or maybe listening to music. We think it’s important that there are actually really helpful psychotherapies that are very specific and can help people get on a more natural sort of healing trajectory than we expect.

Donna: We all will experience grief of some sort.

O'Connor: Grief comes in lots of flavors. The death of loved ones, certainly, but also romantic break ups, divorces, and even kids moving away from home. The empty nest times when we have homesickness, or we retire from a job. So, there are lots of things that cause us grief.

O’Connor will be part of the Gallatin Valley Circle of Compassion’s annual Mountains of Courage conference this year on death and dying.

The conference is this Saturday, April 1 and you can find tickets on the Mountains of Courage website or call 406-589-5537 for more information.