Sitting Alone

Sharing – Seeing grieving as learning explains why the process takes time

This article helped me understand why grieving can seem so messy, and take so long.

“The idea that adaptation to loss requires learning is not a new idea. However, the ‘grieving as learning’ framework helps us understand how specific cognitive and neurobiological processes can shape the ways in which grieving people ‘relearn the world’, as the philosopher Thomas Attig described it. The learning process will likely look different for everyone. But understanding the broad strokes of what is happening in the brain could help us to feel more normal in our grieving – and to better appreciate why our grieving processes, and those of the people we care for, require time and experience.”

We already know that our brains can be powerful things. We see connections and sense danger well before it’s real, and for some of us who have lived through trauma, we know that it can be almost impossible to turn off that hypervigilant state of sensing danger in every interaction. It makes sense that our brains would develop similar predictive patterns around the people we are close to. It’s why we can tolerate being apart from them, the prediction that they will be with us again on this day or this time of the day. We spend years, even decades, relying on that prediction, and it won’t just go away when they pass away. Our brains will need to learn a whole new way of living day to day without that prediction, without that person and the interactions that filled a part of our lives.

My wife and I both suffered the loss of our parents a few years back, and the grieving process looked very different. We both had to answer the question of what our life patterns and predictions were without our parents. We had different relationships with our parents, so that process looked very different. Still, it also required both of us to not only unlearn the predictions we had about the role they played in our lives but to learn new predictions about the role other family members played in our lives. Things like how to stay connected to siblings and more distant family when there is no central parental connection, what role you need to play to support younger children who lost grandparents, etc. It’s no surprise that learning these new predictive models and roles would take time. It’s also no surprise that some people simply don’t ultimately make these adjustments. It’s a lot.

So maybe, instead of agonizing over your friends not “being over it,” understand that they are learning a whole new way to navigate the world and figure out how you can help.

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