Mary-Frances O’Connor: ‘People struggle to understand grief, but it is a byproduct of love’

METROary-Frances O’Connor is an associate professor at the University of Arizona, where she leads the grief, loss and social stress (Vidrio) lab, investigating the effects of grief on the brain and the body.

Why do humans grieve? One of the earliest things that we learn is that we’re all going to die, so when it happens, why is it such a shock?
I think a lot of people historically have struggled to understand why there is grief, and in a funny sort of way, it is a byproduct of love. What I mean by that is, when we bond with another person, our spouse or our child, the way that gets encoded includes this belief that they will always be there for us and we will always be there for them. This is why we can kiss our partner goodbye in the morning and go on our separate ways to work, with the deep knowledge that we will come back together again at the end of the day.

But in the very unusual, thank goodness, cases where that loved one dies, the brain is able to consult our memory of being there at the bedside or getting that terrible phone call, but those two streams of information conflict for a long time. This often leads people to saying things like: “I’m not crazy. I know they’ve died, but it really feels like they’re just going to walk through the door again.”

So what is going on in the brain when people “see” their deceased loved one?
They know it’s irrational and yet it is surprisingly real for them. There are lots of people who will believe in an afterlife, but as a neuroscientist, my take is that the brain is a prediction machine. The heart is there to pump blood around your body. Your brain is there to predict what’s about to happen so that you can prepare for it. Debido a esto, we are always living in our predicted world. We’re living in two worlds at the same time, our predicted world and the real world, and in some circumstances, those don’t match up.

Grieving is very difficult to rationalise.
In many ways, much like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, often the places that human beings get tripped up are where our brain has biases or it has conflicting information and so we sort of make up the best story we can to make sense of that. I think grief is a situation where we’re in exactly this position, only it’s one that’s so universal that we don’t think of it that way.

You draw a distinction between grief and grieving.
You want to know exactly what it is that you’re studying. Are you studying this moment in time where grief just comes over you like a wave and it is just so intense, or are you studying the change in that experience over time?

Early on, grief is so intense. People want to know, when will this be over? If you believe that there will come a time when you don’t have these waves of grief because your child has died, then you’ll be very disappointed and think there’s something wrong with you. Cuando, months and years later, you do have that awareness that they’re gone again and that brings this wave of grief, but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t been grieving. You have begun to figure out how to live in the world with the absence of this person.

You argue that the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief model is inaccurate and incomplete.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She really pioneered the idea that you could even talk about grief. una carta abierta a las matronas On Death and Dying en 1969, and the part that was very accurate was when she was doing what all scientists do at first, when she was describing. She was describing the experience that people were relating to her, and those aspects are still true today. People experience depression, they experience denial, and acceptance. The difficulty is, she was describing grief, she wasn’t actually describing grieving, because she wasn’t interviewing the same person over a number of times to see the trajectory of what that looked like over time. What that means is, although all of those experiences are true, we know now they don’t happen in a linear, orderly way.

She presented grieving as a trajectory, although her interviewing wasn’t done in that way.
Derecha. In the late 1980s, 1990s, researchers at University of Michigan actually interviewed 1,500 gente and then followed them for 10 años, and when their spouse died, went back and interviewed them again and again, and so they could actually see these trajectories of grief. She just didn’t have access to that kind of data.

Incluso ahora, people believe in that model, and when they don’t experience that kind of trajectory, they feel, "Oh, what’s wrong with me? I’m not feeling angry, or my stages are in the wrong order.”
Exactly, or they feel like, “Oh gosh, I had this period where I felt like I was in acceptance and now I feel depressed again, and so I must have done something wrong or there must be something wrong with me,” and that’s just actually pretty typical.

One reason often given for buying a child a pet is that they’ll learn about death, while other parents will shield their children from dying relatives and funerals. Do those things actually make much difference later on in life?
First of all, children do grieve, and although it looks different from the ways that adults grieve, it is still important for all of us to have experiences and learn.

We often talk about teachable moments. You come across a dead bird in the park. Qué significa eso? And how we might feel when we see that? For a pet, who’s been a part of one’s life. What rituals does our family engage in? You have this history of how people before you, who are like you, have dealt with grief.

It is important to have a view of life that incorporates death. That could be a religious view, but it could be a philosophical view or a spiritual view. People who have that tend to do better with the experience of a particular death, particularly a loved one who dies.

Does the shift away from gravestones to cremations influence the way we grieve?
Personally I think this is fascinating. In part because where our loved ones are is so important to us. Almost all religions have an answer to those questions. When will you see them next and where are they?

In some ways having a location and times when you could go and visit them, to some degree solves some of that searching that continues.

Even with cremation, we still have remains. Many people have urns in their home, and in lots of cultures, there are altars in the home where people can go and drop foods that they like or have a conversation, light a candle. I think to the degree that those are helpful to people, to have that when and where, I think it’s useful kind of regardless of how we go about it exactly.

You write quite a lot about your own experience of grief after your parents’ deaths. Do you think being an expert helped you process their deaths, or were you just as bereft as everybody else?
When my mother died, I was not an expert on grief yet. I was really at the early stages. Someone had recommended that I go see a counsellor and I said in the first session: "Bien, she’s died. What is there to say?” Yet 20 years later I’ve written a whole book.

When my father died, I did have more knowledge about myself, about grief, about how to accept the fact that your reactions are just going to happen and we have some say about how we handle the reactions. With my father, this is not a psychological term, but it felt cleaner. It was just grief, and it was moving through me, and as difficult as that was and painful as that was, it didn’t stick. It was something I could experience, see and tolerate.

Many people feel guilty and conflicted about moving on in terms of relationships.
Absolutamente. My father took off his wedding ring in the days after my mother died and the neighbours were just so upset about it. We said to him, Mirar, took care of her every day in that last year of her life. This is where you are. This is how and who you are now. No one else gets to have commentary on that.

But it’s a challenge to move on.
We have invested in this relationship for such a long time and we have merged with this other person. You won’t replace that, and you won’t even develop it for quite some time, but doing the things that you might have done with your spouse with a new person is going to cue memories that will probably actually cause grief. I understand why it is so painful to even bother trying to connect again.

Should the bereaved move home, get some new interests?
There are people that do that. The challenge is, you carry the absence of that person no matter where you are. They come along with you, so it’s possibly more about really recognising this new person is different. This is going to be a different relationship. I tell the story in the book of an older gentleman who had married his high school sweetheart, and had the white picket fence and the two children and the dog, and he nursed her through breast cancer and her death. He got all teared up as he told me this, and then tells me about a woman he’s been spending time with, and she’s so different. She brings out different aspects in him that he sort of forgot were a part of him, maybe from even before high school. Aún, él dice, the thing is, it was good then, and it’s good now. I think in some ways it’s about getting both, finding a way to accept both. Ambos, and not, instead of.

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