In The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn About Love and Loss, I make a distinction between “grief” and “mourning”. Sorrow is the wave that knocks you down and surprises you with both its ferocity and its strangeness, nothing like the simple sadness you might have expected. But having authors tell us about their harrowing experience makes us feel less alone, or at least more normal, and so these books are invaluable. Grief, on the other hand, is how the feeling of grief changes over time without ever going away. Grieving is the process in which we discover that we need to carry the grief with us, carry on with the grief, while restoring a meaningful life. We are not alone in this either, because creating a meaningful life is a never-ending process; learning how other authors have done it – reflecting on their philosophy – connects us all in this universal experience of human branding.
Megan Devin, It’s OK You’re Not OK: Encountering Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand
Recently, a dear friend mourned the death of his mother, was distant and shunned our circle of friends, and burst out in anger at seemingly minor moments. I recognize his path, crossing the dark night of loss. For him, and for others in acute grief or struggling over time, I recommend Megan Devine’s fantastic account of how to avoid the “tyranny of positive thinking” that many bereaved people face. She explains why words of comfort can sound so bad and allows me to invite my dear friend to share with me what it’s like to be him, living in grief.
Jeanne Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion’s story of not being able to throw away her husband’s shoes after he died because he would need them again was perhaps my first idea that the brain can really tap into two different sources of information in same time, even if they conflict. . Through Didion’s honesty and courage about her own grief experience, she reveals the lived experience that led me to develop the vanished but also eternal theory: When we bond with a loved one, that bond is encoded in the brain with the unmistakable belief that our one and only will always be there. This conflicts with the memory of their funerals, with their absence from breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a neuroscientist, Didion’s brilliant writing made me realize that magical thinking shouldn’t be ignored like delusions of grief, but could reflect exactly oh
w the brain processes the world.
Victor Frankl, Man’s quest for meaning
My mother died while I was training to become a psychologist and, in the process, I sought a clinical internship with terminally ill prisoners. Maybe because my scale for what I felt was “awful” had been completely rescaled? In any case, I did not have the necessary training to work with the lifer, unable to speak because of throat cancer, whom I counseled for several months before his death. And so, I read Viktor Frankl’s writings about his experience in a Holocaust concentration camp, thus shaping my understanding that when the worst possible thing happens, you can find meaning. Or at least you can continue…because they did. And there is beauty in this connection, which helps you to go a little further.
Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
To understand grief, you must first understand the connection, because you cannot know what was lost unless you understand what you had. And if you ever hope to restore a full life to loved ones, knowing how to build them up is key. There’s no better insight into close relationships than the work of Sue Johnson. Even as a clinical psychologist, this book has helped me understand my relationships, past and present, more deeply and clearly than ever before.
Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman, How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy
With a name like mine, it will come as no surprise that I was raised Catholic. After my father died, I thought a lot about how he created a meaningful life and the relationship between his faith and his actions in this world. Although I spent years involved in Quakerism and then Buddhism, I had never settled into a religious community. In my quest to discover philosophical or religious views that resonated with mine, I found the collection of short essays by Pigliucci, Cleary, and Kaufman to be an invaluable guide, offering me new perspectives on classical religions and initiating new philosophies such as effective altruism.
Mary-Frances O’Connor’s book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn About Love and Loss is out February 2022 from HarperOne.