Photo of dog
June 14, 2023

Why we can’t just ‘get over’ grief

By Amanda Constable

My dog escaped the yard last night and went visiting! As annoyed as I am with him, I do believe he knew exactly what he was doing. The neighbor he went to visit has lost a loved one. I tracked him down at the neighbor’s house. Petting my dog’s head, the neighbor said quietly, “I’m just not myself these days. I’m forgetful, my brain is foggy, I can’t make decisions, and I can’t concentrate! I think I’m losing my mind!” Then, with an embarrassed smile, my neighbor added, “I know it’s been almost six months, but I just can’t seem to get over this.” I felt my heart grow tight with understanding and then realized, with dismay, how often I hear these words.

The expectations we set for ourselves around what we feel in grief and how long we feel it can be so harsh. It seems so unfair to expect ourselves to simply “get over” a loved one’s death. Their life was too precious and our grief is too important for that. Instead, we experience ever-changing seasons of grief. Like a spring day in Oregon, grief emotions can shift and change with very little warning. My neighbor seemed a bit relieved  that this season of grief has a name: “Grief Brain.”

Grief Brain involves feelings of confusion, trouble making decisions, forgetfulness, numbness, daydreaming, slow mental processing, and other cognitive changes. It is often present within the first year of grief but can be present longer and can present itself over the years in waves of grief known as “grief bursts.”

Grief spends a lot of time in the brain’s limbic system. This area is involved with behavior and emotion, and especially when grief is present it has to do with sadness, the storing of emotional memory, separation distress, and detecting threats to attachment. It’s a part of the brain that starts some pretty intense work at a very young age and doesn’t let go of what it learns. When we try to bypass the important work of grief by convincing ourselves to “get over it,” we set ourselves up for unfair expectations. Our brains are part of the grieving process, and we can’t expect them to also intellectualize us out of it!

Our brains know how to grieve. Grief Brain is our brain’s way of helping us slow down while we do the hard work of honoring the death of someone important to us. It is also how we honor our own feelings.

Adjusting to a death is hard work and requires time—as much time as it takes for each of us. I encouraged my neighbor to give that grieving brain all the time it needs to work with the heart, the soul, and the whole body to honor this loss. In the grief community, we acknowledge that adapting in this way not only takes time but also requires support. We need the nonjudgmental support of friends, family, and even neighbors who understand that it takes time to learn how to adjust. This is crucial for the healing process.

Amanda Constable is manager of WinterSpring grief support and education services at The Learning Well. WinterSpring offers nonjudgmental support through grief groups, classes, and resources. Email or call 541-552-0620 to talk with a team member.


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