Grieving is learning

Apr 08, 2022

In her book The Grieving Brain, Mary-Francis O’Connor, PhD, suggests that grieving can be likened to learning.

She writes, “Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, and grieving necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world,”

She continues, “This means that for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time. You are navigating your life despite the fact that they have been stolen from you, a premise that makes no sense, and that is both confusing and upsetting.”

What if we approached grief in the same way we approach learning?

Profound loss can be a bit like studying for a degree.

  • It doesn’t happen overnight, and in fact, it requires years of study.
  • The concepts are not simple.
  • It feels challenging and overwhelming.
  • New thinking is required.
  • The brain is flooded with information that it needs to absorb and process.
  • There are wins and fails along the way.

Yes, pursing a degree is optional and grieving the loss of a spouse is not. But in many ways, it’s an interesting analogy.

If grieving were akin to learning, then it would be easier to stop:

  • Self-judgement which sounds like, “I should be better by now, after all, it’s been X number of months.”
  • Self-judgement that sounds like, “I know he’s not coming home, so why do I keep expecting him to walk through the door?”
  • Thoughts that sound like, “I don’t know how to do this life without him.”
  • Frustration that sounds like, “My brain is still in a fog.”

If grieving is like studying for a degree, then of course there are wins and fails, of course it can feel overwhelming, of course it takes time to really understand it all.  

What if we could treat ourselves with the same patience and kindness that we would offer a young person who is just starting to study for a degree? Then we could offer ourselves so much more love and compassion. Then we could truly tend to the grief itself, rather than piling extra suffering on top.

If you’re certain that you’re “doing it wrong,” I see you. I was, too. My coaching program called Life Reconstructed is created exclusively for widowed people who are ready to find their way forward and create a life worth living. If that’s you, simply  click here and we’ll see if it’s a fit.

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