It has taken me a long time to learn how to process grief. So long in fact that I recently had the epiphany that certain kinds of grief may last forever. I realized I had been treating grief like a stain on my life that I could scrub away. But grief is part of my learned experience, my memories and my history, and that makes it part of my brain and my biology. I have a set of physical feelings of grief that creep over me when anniversaries come up. To learn how to process my grief I have to witness myself and consciously choose to think certain thoughts.
That deep longing for a loved one who is gone forever has its own biochemistry. When two bodies join in physical intimacy — lovers, life partners, a parent and child, a person and their dog — our microbiomes make connections, we swap bacteria, our scents are filled with microscopic messages of comfort, our neurotransmitters ping each other with the chemistry of joy. This is the biology of love. Love gives life purpose, pushes us to our limits, inspires hope for the future, and fulfills us. So when we are suddenly cut off from the feelings, scents and signals of love, our brains go cold turkey into withdrawal and we experience emotional brain trauma, a lasting psychic injury, the biology of grief.
By the end of 2018, it was coming up on the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death, and my bones seemed to know what time it was. But I didn’t want to feel that sorrow again. I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to outgrow it. I thought my feelings were something my conscious mind could turn off. Instead, alone in my apartment ten years after the fact, I slid into murky sadness and felt awful in a very familiar way. That surprised me. I was disappointed in myself. I felt like I had failed to cure myself. What was wrong with me?
Now, a year later, I see that my ideas for how to process grief were mistaken. Grief is not a stain, a flaw or an imperfection. It’s just another part of life, a permanent feature of my mind and body that may shrink or expand depending on my focus, but it’s always there, and to be mentally healthy I have to learn to appreciate it. If love is unity, grief is loss, the flip side of love. The two come into our lives together, one the shadow of the other. To comfort myself I remember being loved and I try to love myself. I accept the emotional trauma of loss as core to my identity, I hug my dog, I talk to my friends, I go for a walk along the river, I listen to music, I meditate, I write, and I talk to myself. All of these positive activities dilute the negative brain chemistry of grief. I tell myself that I’m going to be okay, I’m fortunate to be here in this place with these tender memories, and I dwell in thankfulness for the love I’ve known.
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