The Grief Alteration
Those who’ve experienced it might be inclined to call it an emotional bloodletting. It’s agonizing, excruciating, and it’s vastly different to go through it than if you just imagine it or observe its effect on someone else.
Of course I refer to the devastating emotion of grief, and your inevitable encounter with it may leave you feeling that something vital has been ripped away by a tremendous force that’s utterly beyond your control. It’s something for you to get through then get over, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong.
Certainly, death tops the list of things that cause grief, but also on that list are things like divorce, job loss, miscarriage, or having a loved one diagnosed with a terminal disease; consider that a dementia caregiver may literally have years of heartbreak watching their loved one lose their memories and personality bit by bit until there’s almost nothing left of the original. This facilitates what’s known as anticipatory grief (grief that occurs before death—in contrast to the more conventional grief after death).
By its very nature, grief presents with a strong and horrible grip. I remember right after my mom died I went to my doctor, trying hard to utter words through my choking sobs. I was frantically wiping tears away as I attempted to regain some self-control. My sentences were piecemealed together as I expressed that I felt simultaneously despondent, agitated and confused—which wasn’t like me at all. The doctor looked at me with compassion and said, “It’s well documented that grief causes alterations in our brain chemistry.” I was completely shocked; I’d never heard such a thing. Then to my amazement, I discovered evidence that backed up the doctor’s claim.
In her article “The Traumatic Loss of a Loved One Is Like Experiencing a Brain Injury,” journalist Amy Paturel quoted Dr. Lisa Shulman, a University of Maryland School of Medicine neurologist, who said, “The emotional trauma of loss results in serious changes in brain function that endure.” Who knew?
Dr. Shulman also indicated that stress associated with the death of someone close to you actually jars your personal identity as well as how you view the world, and when something happens to remind you of that loss, feelings of anxiety or even panic can result. Grief, according to Dr. Shulman, can, in effect, lock the brain in a permanent stress reaction because it triggers the “fight or flight” response. The bereaved person tends to feel isolated because they believe they’re alone in their emotional experience.
I can easily concur with that description of grief, but the acknowledgment of how awful it is now begs the question, “What can we do to survive it?”
Look into God’s Word for Assurance of a Better Outcome
In John 11, I read that when Jesus came to Mary and Martha after the loss of their brother Lazarus, He wept with them as they stood outside the tomb, so I see that Jesus understands grief from a completely human point of view. I am also encouraged as I look at what John wrote in Revelation 21:4, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death…” I know that this agony of grief will not last forever; my salvation through Jesus (Romans 10:9-10) gives me the promise of eternal joy in His presence, not to mention how thrilled I am to know that eventually even death is going to get its tail kicked: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
It can help tremendously to get the grief experience written down in your own words. This gives you a better sense of what specific triggers are causing you the most pain which, in turn, can help you process through (rather than avoid or deny) what you’re legitimately experiencing. You may also find that having a written record will allow you to see how far you’ve come and the progress you may not realize you’ve made.
See a Therapist
There are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and seeing a therapist is a healthy, effective way of moving through each stage toward healing. The professional therapist or counselor can come alongside you as you work through (and often bounce between) the grief stages. Having a trusted therapist can be a real comfort.
Loss is universally hard, and different types of loss will affect people in a wide range of ways. It’s key to acknowledge the loss, realizing exactly what’s happened, and allow our tears to flow. Even knowing that grief can make changes to our brain chemistry is somewhat of a comfort—it helps you to understand that you’re not crazy, just grieved, and it’s OK to express that and then allow yourself to heal. With time, even the most devastating grief can be dulled down, and memories of your loved one will have more of “sweet” than of “sting.”