Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 170, The Grieving Brain: An Interview with Mary-Frances O’Connor.
Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief, to grow, evolve, and create a future you can truly look forward to. Here’s your host, Master Certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St. Germain.
Hey there, welcome to another episode of the podcast. Listen, please, please listen to this episode. It is so good. I’m recording the intro after the interview has already completed as I usually do and I just love Mary-Frances O’Connor. I love her book which is called The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn From Love and Loss. I love it so much that when I do my advanced certification for coaches who want to learn more about coaching grief, everyone is going to be getting a copy of this book. It is just that good.
So, I loved my conversation with her. I think you’re going to benefit so much from a variety of angles so I hope you love it too. Also, two things I want to mention to you, one, send me a little energy, a little good mojo as you listen to this because on the day that this releases my daughter will be heading off on her three month adventure for university in Costa Rica which of course it’s my baby leaving. And so, I’ve talked about this before, I just keep making space for myself to feel all the feelings. I’m not trying to make myself feel any differently than I do.
And I know a lot of you are out there going through similar things as college starts, as school starts, as you’re doing things without your person that maybe you’ve never done. And you’re watching your kids do things without your person that they’ve never done. And so, I’m thinking of you, I would love it if you thought of me.
And then secondly, I have mentioned a couple of times the Memories That Matter journal and it is finally available for you. So, you can go to coachingwithkrista.com/memories and if you like you can purchase the Memories That Matter journal. It was so much fun for me to create. I really just wanted a way for you to not have to worry about forgetting the memories that matter to you.
And so, Memories That Matter is a journal with a 100 prompts so that you don’t have to think about what you want to remember. You can just answer the questions because they’re right there for you. And capture those memories that are important to you so that you won’t have to worry about whether you remember or not, that was one of the things that just bothered me so much, is that I didn’t trust my memory when Hugo died. And I was so afraid that I would forget and I didn’t want to forget. And what I wish I would have had, a journal like this.
So, I’m happy to offer it to you and I hope you love it. And again, you can go to coachingwithkrista.com/memories and check it out and tell me what you think about it.
So, let’s get into my interview with Mary-Frances O’Connor, I hope you love it and benefit from it as much as I did.
Krista: Mary-Frances O’Connor, I told you this before I hit record but I really do mean it, I am more excited to have you than any guest I’ve ever had on the podcast. So welcome to the Widowed Mom Podcast.
Krista: No, truly, seriously. I have this whole list of things I’m ready to talk to you about. So welcome.
Mary-Frances: Thank you. It’s really lovely to be here, Krista.
Krista: I’m glad, I’m glad. We have the official bio and everything but I would love it if you would just kind of kick us off by telling listeners just a little bit about you, how you came to be interested in grief, because that’s not a common thing and whatever you want listeners to know.
Mary-Frances: I think about this question a lot, how did I get interested in grief. And as a psychologist sometimes I feel like we’re actually not very good at understanding our own motivations. I will tell you that for me it happens at a couple of different levels. For one I am fascinated by the idea that when we fall in love, when we make relationships with that one and only, that that changes our brain. That somehow our neurons encode that, is just simply fascinating.
And sadly, the flipside of that is how the heck does our brain understand when a loved one dies? And so, I’ve been pursuing these questions for a little over 20 years now. And while that is all true there is another side to it which is that my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer when I was 13 and she lived another 13 years which is kind of amazing.
Krista: Stage 4.
Mary-Frances: Yeah, her oncologist used to call her his first miracle. So, the thing about it was it meant that grief came to our house and even while she was ill she struggled with depression. And a lot of my wanting to understand grief and grieving comes from wanting to understand her experience, wanting to know what are things that I could have done to help. And so, it isn’t always even just about my own grief experience, although my father also died about seven years ago. And that experience was very different since I was older and knew a lot more.
And so, all of this leads me to both professional and personal reasons that grief feels so important and to share that with your listeners seems vital.
Krista: Yes, so much so. And of course, all of my listeners are, well, maybe not all of them but it is called The Widowed Mom Podcast so we can assume most of them are widows and moms but if not, definitely very interested in grief. And one of the things I find particularly frustrating is the lack of knowledge or the amount of misconceptions that people come to their own grief experience carrying and how much harder it then makes that grief experience on them because they aren’t prepared for it, nobody talked to them about it.
And most of what they have learned is either outdated, or slightly off and not so valuable. So, I would love to just get into all the misconceptions, the way the brain works, just really all of it if that’s okay.
Mary-Frances: I think that’s brilliant. I mean the whole motivation for the book for me was that I, every day I’m reading articles on research that’s been done in grief. And I realized that that information just wasn’t getting into the hands of people who could actually use it. When I sit next to someone on the plane, and we get into a conversation I realize they’re not getting the best cutting edge knowledge that we have now about grief, and bereavement, and grieving. And so that is my goal is to get it into the hands of people who could use it.
Krista: And who was your intended audience for the book?
Mary-Frances: It really is sort of that person I sit next to on the plane. And so, it’s really not meant for people who have any background in science, or neuroscience, or it’s really a book for people who have had the experience of grief themselves either somewhat recently or even a long time ago. And are just still wondering, why does this hurt so much? Why does this take so long? Or the other group I think is for people who maybe have not had profound loss but are supporting people who are grieving and feel a disconnect.
I know they’re going through a lot but I don’t really understand and I’d like to know more. It’s for sort of I call the grief adjacent as well.
Krista: Yes. And sometimes they’re wondering, they think we should be making more ‘progress’ and why aren’t we? And if this, has something gone wrong and are we stuck and those kinds of things, yeah. Okay, so you already mentioned the passage of time. And one of the most pervasive and problematic things I hear is women coming to me and thinking, well, enough time has passed, all I have to do is just wait for time to pass. And as though time in and of itself does something. And I’ve kind of been known to joke about time doesn’t heal, it just sits there.
But it really is more nuanced. So, from the perspective of someone who studies the brain, can you explain what can happen over the passage of time or during the passage of time and how that actually relates to our experience?
Mary-Frances: I think that initially when we’re grieving, when it’s very acute, we just want to know, when is it going to be over? I think that’s a very natural desire. And so, I think it is both complicated to get the answer, grief will never be over and also there will be, some stages you’ll go through and then you’ll be done. I think both answers aren’t really as you say, incorporating the nuance of what happens.
And a distinction that I make and I make this because of the way I study it but has turned out to be really helpful is the distinction between grief and grieving. So, grief is just the natural response to being aware of the loss of something so important to you. Grief is a noun. It’s that wave that takes you over and in that moment you think, oh my God, I’m not going to get through this and this is just truly, truly terrible.
And grief is just a human emotion. So, we are going to feel grief forever, just like we’re going to feel anger forever. It’s just that because of grieving, grieving is a process, grieving is a verb, grieving is how grief changes over time. And so, it doesn’t have to go away.
I know that my sister is getting married in the fall and I know that on her wedding day she and I are going to have a wave of grief at some point. We’re going to tear up because our folks aren’t there and they should be. And so, there’s nothing wrong with our grieving because we have intense grief on that day.
Krista: Right. And we can’t erase the fact that your parents passed, unless we can time travel.
Mary-Frances: Exactly. And so, when you become aware and you’re really feeling that loss you’re going to feel grief. Grieving, that change over time means that the 101st time you have that wave of grief, you think this is terrible. But you may also think it’s also familiar. I do know this feeling, or I know that I will probably get through this moment or even I know how to comfort myself a little bit in this moment in a way that you didn’t know how to do initially. And that’s the change over time that we see with grieving.
Krista: Yeah. The waves keep coming but we kind of figure out how to adjust to them.
Mary-Frances: Exactly. You learn sort of how to surf. That’s a terrible metaphor maybe. But those waves may come less frequently or less intensely when they come but you’re still going to have them and that’s okay. It’s just because you had such an important person in your life.
Krista: Yeah. I always think too, I wouldn’t really ever want to not miss my husband.
Mary-Frances: Yeah, that’s right because he was so important.
Krista: Right. It would feel weird to just think I’m so glad that happened.
Mary-Frances: Yeah, right, that’s not a thing, yeah.
Krista: I’m not. I’m not at all.
Mary-Frances: And it never will be. And I don’t know if this story will help you. But I do lots and lots of interviews with grieving people for the research that I do. And there was an older man that I was talking with and he told me the story of having married his high school sweetheart. And they had two kids and a dog and there was probably a white picket fence in there. And then he told me this story of her getting breast cancer and he cared for her while she was terminally ill. And of course, he got all choked up and he told me about that.
And then he said that recently he had met someone and that they were spending a bunch of time together and she was very different from his wife but she brought out kind of different things in him and that he was feeling kind of energized. And he said to me, I think the most profound thing which was he sort of paused and said, “You know, the thing is it was really good then and it’s really good now.” And I think that’s ultimately it. If it was good then you’re going to have grief. But it can also sometimes be good now.
Krista: Yeah. And we have an unlimited capacity to love.
Mary-Frances: Exactly, yeah.
Krista: Okay. So, since you talk so much about these concepts of here now and close, and what our brain really has to learn after the loss of a loved one. Can you explain that basically to our listeners.
Mary-Frances: I was really searching for a long time of why does this take so long. Why is it, you could think of grieving as a form of learning, I have to learn. What does it mean to be in the world without my one and only? So why does it take so long, we’re good at learning things. Well, it finally really dawned on me that our attachment system, the invisible tethers that we have once we bond with your spouse, or your partner, or even your child, you have these invisible tethers that capture you in the world.
So, if I say to you right now, “Do you know where your daughter is, or do you know where your boyfriend is, or girlfriend is?” You probably have a sense of where they are, how you can get to them, how long it’ll be till you see them again. So, these are the invisible tethers that bring us back together over and over again. And that’s super important for human beings. It’s as important as food and water that we have these loved ones.
And so, our loved one doesn’t have to be in our presence for us to believe that they’re out there, to believe that we’re going to be back together again otherwise how could you bear the anxiety of going off to work every day? So, here’s the kicker. For your brain, when the person isn’t visible to you, then it just believes that they’re out there somewhere and you should go get them. There is a simple solution to them not being in your presence. And it works for years, and years, and years it work.
And then something so unusual and tragic happens as them dying. And your brain continues to have this attachment bond that says they’re out there somewhere, you should go get them even though another part of your brain has memories. It has memories of being at the bedside and taking care of them or being with them as they passed away, or being at a memorial or funeral. So, you know the reality on the one hand. And at the same time, you can have this attachment belief, my one and only is out there for me.
And because those two things cannot both be true at the same time it takes us a long time for our brain to update and understand, no, I have to be able to predict they’re not going to be there tomorrow. And that takes a long time to understand.
Krista: Yeah. So, listeners, what I hope you’re hearing her say is when you intellectually know that they are not on a business trip but your brain thinks they are, when you pick up the phone to text them the message and you know they’re not going to answer but you still pick up the phone. Or when the garage door opens and you think it’s them coming home, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain’s just trying to find them and has not updated its, I’ll say software, it’s probably not the right way to say it.
Mary-Frances: Exactly, yeah. No, that’s exactly right, it hasn’t updated yet. It’s in the habit, it’s in the pattern, it’s in the way things sort of should be according to your brain. And there’s nothing wrong with you. It doesn’t mean your crazy. It just means that you’re still learning, grieving is a form of learning, learning takes a long time.
Krista: That’s one of my favorite quotes from your book, you wrote, you’re not losing your mind, you’re just in the middle of a learning curve. And if I could literally tell you how many times women have come to me thinking that there is something wrong with them and that they’re losing their mind because it’s just not normalized.
Mary-Frances: I know, it just isn’t. And I don’t even really know why but there is this idea that you’ll just come back and just be who you were before. Well, how is that even possible. That’s not how human beings work.
Krista: Yeah, totally. I like to think of it – I remember very clearly a moment where I was standing in the bathroom and I was looking in the mirror. And I remember thinking I don’t know who I am, who is that person looking back at me and how very real that felt in the moment of just not even knowing. Seeing myself and intellectually recognizing the being, the human, the brown eyes, the hair, and just really believing I didn’t know who I was.
Mary-Frances: Well, and this is another, I think, fascinating thing that when we bond with someone, that sense of ourself and that sense of the other, they start to overlap. It isn’t you and me, it’s we. Even the words that we use, so let’s say, so I use the word ‘daughter’ to describe myself. That’s a word that describes me but that word actually implies two people, doesn’t it?
Krista: So much so.
Mary-Frances: And the same with the word ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, that implies two people as well. So even though it’s a description of yourself it implies that there is a we. And so, when you’re looking at yourself and you’re identifying, who am I, that is a part of you is this other person in the world. And so, it’s this question of who is this widow person who I apparently am now, how is that different from my wife person? And how can I understand how to operate in the world given I’m a different person than I was before?
Krista: Yeah, one of the things that I have found helpful is just to kind of normalize the idea that it’s really easy to believe that you don’t know who you are. And to some extent you might not have known this version of you. And also, to remind yourself that there are things that you do know because it’s easy to get lost in the I don’t know. And I like to think of it, if I went to a foreign country and I got out of the plane and I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t have a map, I probably wouldn’t tell myself, “I don’t know who I am.”
I would say, “I don’t know where I am. I’ve never been here before.” And that’s the switch. I love to encourage people to make is, to remind yourself, yes, you might not know this version of you but there are things about you that you do know and also you’ve never been where you are before.
Mary-Frances: Well, and this relates to something that you said before, this I think connects to time. So, as you are in this new world, as you are on this learning curve, it isn’t actually the passage of time that matters, just as you say. It’s something that happens along with the passage of time which is experience. And so, it’s so important to try things on, to try things out. This may sound like a silly example but after my mom died my dad was a widower for a very long time.
And I grew up in a tiny hometown in rural Montana. And when he would come to visit me we would often go shopping because there weren’t many options in his hometown. And we went shopping after my mom died when he had come to visit me for bathroom towels. And so, he said, “I need bathroom towels.” I said, “Okay, well, shall we go to the store.” And I pull out some yellow towels and he says, “No, I don’t like yellow towels. I want purple towels.”
Well, I have to tell you, my father has never had an opinion on bathroom towels ever. But he was exploring, what kind of towels does this guy like? And he was trying something out. I think I like purple towels. And so, encouraging each other to figure out who are you now and to take some risks. Purple towels aren’t the worst thing in the world, even if later you think, why did I pick them?
Krista: Right. And it’s so unnecessary I think to put pressure on ourselves to expect that we would know exactly what we want or where we’re going. And so, to allow ourselves to learn by doing, we try something. And if we don’t like it we have more data now and we can make a different decision. And it’s an iterative process of kind of figuring it out but we get paralyzed. Yeah, I think we get paralyzed because we expect ourselves to know and we almost demand something which I think is just so unfair.
Mary-Frances: Yes, because you are a different person now, you just are. And that means that all of the things that you have loved up to this point influence who you are now. And also, you can try new things. Learn by doing. I love that.
Krista: Learn by doing. I’m constantly telling my clients that, we learn by doing. So, I call it widow fog. But can you tell us from your perspective, what is happening when someone who is bereaved feels like there is cotton candy in their brain and they cannot remember, and they cannot process the way they used to process and it just feels foggy in there?
Mary-Frances: Yes. First of all, that’s totally true, totally normal and very likely will go away eventually. So that’s probably the most reassuring part. And here’s I think what’s happening. Think of every single habit having to be updated. Every single intention, and prediction, and plan, and everything that you do has to be updated. Well, I think probably a concrete example that people can relate to is let’s say you’re downloading some software to your computer, you’re updating your computer.
What’s happening in the background, you’re not actually seeing what’s happening. But if you’re trying to type on a document the typing has really slowed down, and jumpy. Well, because the computer is processing a lot in the background while you’re trying to do the task at hand. And the brain is the same way. It’s trying to make sense of the world while you’re trying to make a grocery list. And so of course you’re not going to be able to remember do I still have band-aids? I don’t know. Because your brain is busy.
And the other thing I think people forget is that grieving is stressful. It’s stressful for your body. And so, I sometimes tell bereaved folks, it’s like you’re trying to learn calculus, that’s how hard this is. While also training for a marathon. All the adrenalin, all the cortisol is not helping, all the lack of sleep, and not remembering to eat, none of that is helping. And so, patience is so important.
Krista: Yeah. As opposed to letting your inner critic run the show and believing the nonsense that you’re not doing it right or that it’s even possible that you could do it wrong, or that there’s something wrong with you, or you’re forever damaged. But really figuring out, okay, how do I champion myself?
Mary-Frances: That’s right.
Krista: How does my body and brain adjust?
Mary-Frances: That’s exactly right, how do I champion myself? I like that. And sometimes that is being kind to yourself like you would to a good friend. And some of it is I think even treating yourself as you would a good friend. So, use calendars more, make more lists. There’s nothing wrong with you and it may not even always be that way. But put those guardrails in place. If you keep forgetting to take your medicine, set an alarm.
Krista: Yeah. And if you’ve bitten off more than your brain is prepared to handle, it’s okay to back off. It’s okay to say, “I need more time before I get back to my full schedule”, or what have you.
Mary-Frances: That’s exactly right, yeah.
Krista: Okay. So, I think you and I are on a very similar page when it comes to the most common theory of grief that everyone hears about and misunderstands. So can you talk about your thoughts on the five stages of grief. To me it’s almost fingernails on a chalkboard because I’m so used to people using it against themselves. Tell us what you think.
Mary-Frances: Well, my perspective is that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross who was a psychiatrist when there were not a lot of women in this field. She was a remarkable woman. She was a remarkable scientist. And she did what all scientists do in the beginning, she described. She had this revolutionary idea that you could talk to people who were terminally ill or talk to people who were grieving. And she described for us what they were experiencing. She said, “No, look, anger is a part of this, it can be a part of this or denial can be a part of this.”
This bargaining thing you do round, and round, and round in your head, that can be a part of grief. So, I think the good part is she gave us a description but that was 1969. Think of how far science has come since 1969. We have a lot more data points now than she had with these individual interviews. So, what we know now is that there isn’t a linear set of stages. And you don’t even go through all of the stages she was describing.
So really Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross gave us a description of grief. She did not give us a prescription for grieving. And so, while it can be useful to realize there’s a range of emotions and thoughts and feelings that comes along with grief, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have all of one, you’re going to do all of depression and then you’ll be done and you’ll never feel depressed again. That’s unfortunately just not how it works.
But we do know from scientific research when we follow the same person over time, and in fact do that hundreds, and hundreds, and even thousands of times that in general, acceptance tends to rise across time, not in a linear way. But over time people tend to accept more. And yearning tends to decline over time. That doesn’t mean you never yearn for them again but there is sort of the flipside of a coin. And you see the change, the grieving in the intensity and frequency of those.
Krista: Can you talk about because you write about it in your book, the difference as you see it between accepting and acceptance?
Mary-Frances: I really like to make this distinction because acceptance to me sounds like, and you’re done, you’ve hit acceptance, you’ve accepted, this has happened, this is how it affects me, this is what I’m going to do next, and you’re done. Well, it just never feels that way I think. Instead, I think of it more as being accepting of whatever you’re in, in the moment. And I think of accepting as you have that wave of grief, you have this new realization, here’s another thing I’m missing about this person.
And accepting to me is just letting it be. It just is true. It just is really painful that you miss this about this person. And you don’t have to react to it and say, “How long is this going to happen and why did this happen to me? And am I handling it well? And should I say anything?” You just have the accepting moment that this is true. And I also don’t mean it like resignation. To me resignation is more this has happened and I’ll never feel any differently again. And I don’t think that accepting actually means that. It means right now this is where I’m at, it just is.
Krista: Yeah. I see resignation a lot too. The phrase new normal, I know that it was, you know, it’s got great intentions behind the idea that we’ll never have the same normal that we had before. But often I see people using it almost against themselves and kind of it really isn’t about accepting what’s currently going on as much as it is about resigning themselves to their ideas of what’s possible.
Mary-Frances: That’s right. That’s right, resignation is much more about can we see a future where we’re able to have meaning, where we’re able to have love and connection with our living loved ones? And even if in this moment you’re not feeling that, accepting can mean I’m not feeling that right now but I’m leaving the door open for the possibility that could happen again for me.
Krista: Yes. I’m a big Byron Katie fan. And so, one of my favorite quotes from Byron Katie is when we argue with reality we lose but only a 100% of the time. The idea that no matter how we’re feeling when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling that way, no matter what’s happened and we tell ourselves it shouldn’t have happened, that accepting is in that moment not saying, I love this, necessarily. Although Byron Katie would probably go that far. I’m not quite that far. But of just know this is, this is what’s real for me right now and this is what happened.
Mary-Frances: I think I know why you say that, I finally made a distinction for myself that is I think you can get to a point where you feel like, I don’t prefer one moment over another. This is the moment that I get. And to some degree I feel lucky I get a moment at all. This is the moment that I get and this is what it is like. And I know that whatever this moment is, it’s going to change. And I think that which is a little deep and philosophical, and not so much empirically proven or anything.
But I think that that can bring with it a lot of peace. And I think obviously that’s what folks are looking for. And also, if you can’t do that, don’t beat yourself up about that either. If you just want to throw the cup across the room today, and no one’s in the way, well, just throw the cup.
Krista: And I think to me that’s what you’re saying is I think sometimes we equate peace and the idea of accepting to positive emotion. And I don’t think, yeah, that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, no, it is just no longer arguing for something that isn’t even when what is may not be something you love.
Mary-Frances: That’s right, that’s right.
Krista: But it’s to drop the resistance.
Mary-Frances: Exactly right. And I have it in my head as an image, accepting is sort of like this burden that you’re holding, you’re just setting it down for a minute. It’s not going anywhere, it’s right there, you can still see it. You may even end up picking it up again in five minutes.
Mary-Frances: But right at this moment you’re just going to set it down.
Krista: So, it’s more like an act as opposed to a destination or a place.
Mary-Frances: Yes, that’s right. And I think a subtle distinction it took me a long time to make is that I want to know what I’m feeling in the moment whether I like it or not. And that gives me more information about how to react to how I’m feeling in the moment. So, if I don’t really understand how I’m feeling in the moment, then it’s probably just influencing my conversations with other people for example, without me intentionally doing anything about it.
If I’m not aware that I’m feeling really lonely in this moment then my iciness towards the cashier is probably partly motivated by that. But if I don’t know what I’m feeling, how can you change the way you react to feeling lonely? And so those feelings that come over us, they are just natural responses. You don’t get a choice about that. You do get a choice to some degree about how to react to those feelings. So, to know what they even are in the first place and not to negate them immediately and argue with reality as you said is because it gives you information.
Wow, I am in a moment here where I am feeling so alone. And how am I going to react to that moment? Or if I’m in the middle of some interaction, how is that probably influencing me? And should I just name it? Should I just be quieter and try not to react as much? You have choices then about how you’re going to move forward in that moment, once you accept that aloneness is going to happen, it’s just natural.
Krista: So many of the valuable conversations that I have with people are about feelings about feelings.
Mary-Frances: Yes, exactly.
Krista: And so, it’s to me if we can get the idea that the pain, it is a part of being human, it is a part of grief, and what’s more valuable to put our attention to is not so much about making the pain go away, it’s about how do I think about this pain that I’m experiencing so that I have an easier experience of it, that I don’t dirty it all up with a judgment, or make myself feel bad because it’s there, or catastrophize and make myself…
Mary-Frances: Yeah, I’ll always feel this way.
Krista: Right. But to say that we’re never supposed to feel negative emotion, that any emotion we’re feeling is not how we’re supposed to be feeling is just so, it does not ever bear fruit.
Mary-Frances: No. I think the difference between knowing it is true, I feel x and what am I going to do now that I know I’m feeling x, separating those somehow to me was helpful.
Krista: I was just talking actually at a coaching call in my group earlier today and one of my members was having trouble because in her mind she wants to go back to church, when she thinks about it, emotionally very challenging. And what she was telling herself was that she should feel confident. As opposed to saying, “No, honestly, how I feel is sad. How I should feel when I go to church is how I do feel which is sad. I’m not supposed to feel confident because I don’t and it’s okay to feel however I feel.”
Mary-Frances: It just is and this I think is the crazy, when we start avoiding experiences, the difficulty about that is we stop learning. We’re not in new situations where we find out what it is like to be who you are now. So, the example I often think of is there can be this slow upward spiral, but you’re not going to notice it at first. And that’s difficult. So, the example I think of is older couple and he dies and she doesn’t want go out to dinner with their couple friends anymore. This was something she loved doing. And she just doesn’t want to do it anymore.
And so, she’s not going to know what it’s like to go out as a single person. And here’s the kicker, it’s probably not going to be great the first time. She’s going to go and come back and think, well, that was terrible. And then sadly the second time she goes it might not be great either. But here’s the slow upward spiral. She has remembered how to go out and make a dinner reservation again. And the third time she goes out she thinks, well, that was terrible but I’ve never had the lobster bisque before and that was kind of good.
And then the next time, and we had this conversation about this book that I think I’m going to get now that I had never heard of. And there were parts of it that were terrible and there were parts of it that were good, that were meaningful, that were connecting etc. So, it’s a slow spiral.
Krista: So, it’s letting it be what it is which is sometimes honestly hard. And then allowing time for the brain to do its thing and learn, knowing that you might not see it. It might be exercising where you might not see your progress initially. But eventually all of a sudden you’re like, wow, my arms are stronger, I can lift a little more.
Mary-Frances: Exactly, that’s exactly it.
Krista: I think too the opposite of what can be happening there when we don’t put ourselves in those situations and let ourselves learn is that our thinking brain can kind of get away from us. So, we kind of start to build these stories about I’m a third wheel, I don’t fit in. I don’t have friends anymore, they don’t like me. They don’t call me. And our brain then starts looking for evidence of all of that thinking and then it becomes something we genuinely believe and it’s such a harder mountain to climb.
Mary-Frances: It really is, instead of kind of what is actually happening right now in this moment.
Krista: Yeah, okay. So, I talk a lot about because I find most people don’t really know much about how to allow a feeling. We’re very comfortable doing what our parents did and role modeling what we’ve been taught about emotion which often isn’t actually very helpful. But because I teach that and sometimes I think people take it to an extreme. And then think that well, okay, I need to be looking at these hard feelings all the time. I should be thinking about my loss. I should be doing the work of grief.
And so dual process theory of grief is one of my favorites. So, this is what I want to ask you. So, I know you wrote in your book, distraction and denial have their usefulness. Can you talk about why that is? Why is it true that confronting emotion isn’t always good and suppressing it isn’t always bad?
Mary-Frances: Well, one reason is because of something I said before, because grief is stressful, it’s hard on a body. And so, if you can give yourself a break for a little while, if you can binge watch ER, then take a break. Your body and your mind could probably use it. Now, if that’s all you’re doing, if you come home from work and you watch ER until you go to bed seven days a week that’s probably not giving you enough room to actually have new experiences.
But if that’s sometimes what you’re doing, there is a place for that. So, I think strategies for coping, it needs to be a really big toolkit. Even of the ones we’ve talked about so far, you’ve got throwing the cup across the room, accepting what it is that you’re feeling in the moment and just imagining kind of setting it down. You’ve got binge watching ER. You’ve got calling a friend and making a plan to go to dinner. So, you need a really big toolkit of how to deal with the emotion because it’s not just the emotion, it’s the emotion in that situation you’re in.
So, if you go to your daughter’s soccer game and you think to yourself, I am pretending that her father hasn’t died for the next 45 minutes. I am going to cheer my heart out for her. I’m just going to pretend nothing has happened. There is nothing wrong with that. That is appropriate for that moment.
Krista: Okay. If you’re listening and you need to rewind that and listen again to give yourself permission. And I think it’s so compounded too by this narrative that we have in our culture that we’re supposed to be doing and that our worth comes from productivity and for women it comes from serving others. And then for my audience of course, most of them are widowed moms and so then we have the pressure of parenting and all of this mess in our minds about really just judging ourselves so harshly when we take a break.
Mary-Frances: That’s right, it’s valuable, it’s important to take a break. You’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first.
Krista: Yes, cliché but true.
Mary-Frances: You just do, it’s just but it’s so true. You’re not helping anyone if you don’t have any oxygen in that plane crash. You know what I’m saying?
Krista: Yeah. No, I’m totally with you. And it is a marathon, it is not a sprint so we have to treat it that way. And sometimes that means actually scheduling downtime which might be unfamiliar.
Mary-Frances: That’s right. And I think of it sometimes, I think it finally dawned on me, I would have a moment where I had downtime potentially because I had scheduled it. And then I would feel really anxious and guilty during the downtime. And it took me a while to wrap my head around, I had to say to myself as I had those feelings, I value this time. I did this intentionally because I value taking a break. This is what taking a break feels like apparently.
And I still value it even though I may have moments of feeling guilty, I still value it and it’s going to have long term benefits for me so I’m going to stay with it.
Krista: Yeah. And that guilt is just caused by a story in my mind.
Mary-Frances: It’s a story.
Krista: That I am used to practicing, yeah, love it. So okay, counterfactual thinking. And I want to talk about counterfactual thinking and rumination. So however you want to talk about it, why do we do it? And maybe what is it first? Let’s assume people don’t know.
Mary-Frances: Well, one flavor of it that I think is easy for people to relate to when they’re grieving is what someone I know whose son died by suicide calls the would have, should have, could have.
Krista: Would have, should have, could have, that’s what I call it too, yeah.
Mary-Frances: Yeah. And the idea that you make up this whole virtual reality in your head, if only I would have gotten them to the hospital sooner. If the doctor should have run this test. If only they could have known that the train was going to be late. But here’s the interesting thing when you think about it, all of those stories end in, and then my loved one lived. And the problem is your loved one didn’t live. And so, the reality that we’re in is how do I be in the world carrying the absence, painful absence of this person?
And if we’re spending a lot of time in this virtual reality, this other story we have about what could have happened, we’re missing out on what’s actually happening right now. And it’s only in the right now that we get to have really positive feelings, that we get to feel loved and connected to other people. And so, by spending all that time in that ruminative sort of set of thoughts of which counterfactuals are one of them, if only, we miss out on today.
Krista: Yeah, and today is really all that we have, it really is all we have. I do think too it’s helpful to kind of extend ourselves some compassion. Humans, we don’t particularly like to feel out of control. So sometimes it’s easier to just find something or someone including ourselves to blame because I think it just perpetuates that illusion that we have control over more than we actually do. And to some extent that feels better.
Mary-Frances: Yeah. The funny thing is because then I think people can get caught in this trap of, I’m having a ruminative thought. I have to stop that.
Krista: Yeah, we’ll ruminate about our ruminating, that’s super helpful.
Mary-Frances: And I love this idea, if you go into a room and you turn on a light switch, it doesn’t matter how long it was dark in there, it’s light now. And so, you can turn on that light switch as many times as you need to. I’m doing it again, no big deal, that’s in the past now. But I’d like to focus on what’s happening around me right now.
Krista: I love that. One of the things I tell myself is, I see you, brain, yeah, whatever is going on. It’s my loving way of being like, I see what you’re doing, I see you.
Mary-Frances: But we’re not going to run that tape right now, I see you, I hear you.
Krista: And I know that you mean well. I know that you mean well but yeah, no, not right now, yeah. Okay, so hot topic, prolonged grief disorder, or complicated grief. Tell me what you think because I know you see it as nuanced as well.
Mary-Frances: I do see it as nuanced. I think, well, I should say first that a lot of people dislike the part of the – they dislike the word ‘disorder’ in prolonged grief disorder. And I just upfront have to say, all of our disorders are called disorders.
Krista: Disorders, [crosstalk].
Mary-Frances: Right, yeah, PTSD, the D is disorder, it just gets added to all of them. I like the term ‘complicated grief’ because it reminds me in the name that the issue is there have been complications in the sort of typical trajectory of grieving. And that the point of identifying people who might have had these complications is because we have effective psychotherapies that can work with people and teach them new skills to get those derailers out of the way, not because we think that intervention is going to take your grief away.
We just said already, you’re going to have grief forever because this person was so important to you. But there’s a difference between this very small group of people, maybe one in ten, who instead of seeing some change over time that we were talking about. After a year we’re not seeing any change in the intensity and frequency of their grief right from the beginning. And so, if it’s been that long and there’s no change over time that says to me maybe some intervention would be helpful here.
When you break a leg, you’re not actually doing anything to knit those cells back together again. You might provide support just like we give support to grieving people, you put a cast on it or you use crutches or whatever. But if it hasn’t healed after a certain period of time it may be because there’s also an infection or there was a second break. And it can be helpful to have intervention to get it back on that natural trajectory of healing. Now, even when a bone has healed it’s not that you don’t know that it was broken.
You can look at an x-ray decades later and still see that that bone was broken, it’s not that you’re not changed. It’s just that you have found a way to strengthen the area around it. You learned how to manage the fact that you’re a person who now has grief. So, I think when the person on the street hears about prolonged grief disorder, if they’re a grieving person and they have been told for years that they’re doing it wrong then I think hearing prolonged grief disorder probably sounds like, great, now we have a whole new group of people telling me I’m doing it wrong.
And that’s not the intention. The intention is for clinicians to be able to talk to each other and identify people who this is a primary problem for them and these are the interventions that we should be using. And I think my goal, my hope is that now clinicians have to be trained in what grief is. This may shock people but there are zero classes, zero lectures.
Krista: It won’t shock my audience. Yeah.
Mary-Frances: Zero lectures for psychiatrists, psychologists, for counsellors about what grief looks like. And so, if they have to be able to identify this one in ten who are not seeing change over time then it also means that we have to train what typical grief looks like, how painful it is, how long it lasts. What are the natural thought patterns and feelings that are so difficult?
And I think that by having this disorder will actually raise the education level of everyone because now suddenly, now that it’s out there in the news, in the hallways of the hospitals, people are talking about it in a way that they weren’t before. And to me that is a benefit even though giving someone a label can be stigmatizing. That is true of all disorders and that is an issue around how mental health is treated but it isn’t specific I think to grief.
Krista: Yeah, I agree. And I in the same way seeing the upside the downside and hoping that we will use the term for good and not evil. Use it as a way to validate an experience that you’re having, raise the awareness so that more people are getting help that is available to them, that they need it. And perhaps shining a light where someone might feel like they’re in the dark and all alone, and not really understanding or broken to say, “This is what I’m experiencing. It isn’t just me. There’s actually a name for this.”
I see that a lot right now. It seems like you’re seeing so many people talking about adult ADHD for example. And so many people getting diagnosed with it and I mean whether it’s accurate or inaccurate, you’re kind of watching this it’s bad and stigmatized to know it’s okay and here’s how I cope. And it’s just becoming normalized and less stigmatized. So yeah, I see the arc of that or the potential of that.
Mary-Frances: I think it’s also it takes, in my training it takes five years to really learn how to diagnose people. So, when you just read a list of criteria I think it’s easy to think, well, that doesn’t apply to anybody or that applies to everybody whose grieving. There is so much context that has to come with the training around diagnosis. So, I think part of the difficulty is just looking at those criteria is misleading if that’s what people think is the only thing.
Krista: Four bulleted items.
Mary-Frances: Exactly. And the final thing I guess I would say on that is I do neuroscience. I’m very curious about how the brain is doing all these things. And I will tell you that when I started this work 20 years ago I came from a hospice background. And I was very skeptical about this idea that at that time there was complicated grief. And I did my first study where I looked at folks who had complicated grief and folks who were grieving but were adapting. And I was really convinced. Once I knew how to diagnose, once I understood and then I saw differences in the brain.
And I thought, wow, if we could explain to people, this is a flavor of experience you’re having. Some people have this flavor where they see change over time. Other people have this flavor where they don’t but we know ways to intervene. And it may be stuff that’s going on in your brain that it’s not your fault necessarily.
Krista: And you don’t have to settle for it. That doesn’t have to be your new normal.
Mary-Frances: Exactly. But here’s the other fascinating thing. It’s different from depression. So, for a long time antidepressants have been the thing that physicians gave out when they saw someone who was having a lot of grief. And we know now from randomized clinical trials that antidepressants aren’t helping with prolonged grief. Antidepressants do not decrease yearning. They do decrease depressive symptoms and people who are grieving can have depression in which case that’s one of many great ways to treat it.
But psychotherapy really is the frontline treatment for prolonged grief disorder.
Krista: Yeah, and yearning being the primary.
Mary-Frances: Yeah, the hallmark sort of core that distinguishes it from depression which is more global. It’s not about some particular person.
Krista: Right, it makes sense. So, since we’re coming to our time, what is it that you wish we had talked about or maybe something that you wish more people knew that we didn’t cover?
Mary-Frances: Gosh, we’ve covered so much ground. I think if there’s one other thing I would add it’s that we can get very stuck in my grief, in what it feels like for me because it’s so intense. But often the most painful thing people have ever experienced and if we can try to shift into this is human grief then suddenly it connects us with all the other people in the world, past, present, and future who have lost their one and only. Our experience isn’t going to be the same as theirs but we now can empathize and connect with them because of the shared human grief experience.
And I think that can really help to pull us out of the very isolating feelings that can come along with grief.
Krista: I love that so much and it is so easy to isolate and believe that no one understands. And to remind ourselves that know to grieve is to be human and it’s an experience that we all have at some point. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Listeners, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn From Love and Loss. You must go buy this book. It is very readable. There’s no heavy terminology that will make it difficult to read. I loved it so much.
Mary-Frances: People say I wrote it the way I talk so hopefully if you understood me, you’ll understand the book.
Krista: I love it. Well, if people want to reach out to you, what’s the best way to learn more about you?
Mary-Frances: There’s a website, maryFrancesoconnor.org that is for my lab, so you can see more of the science there. And it has connections for the book as well.
Krista: Okay, amazing, thank you again so very much.
Mary-Frances: Thank you.
Krista: Alright, take care.
If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so that you can move forward with confidence.
Please don’t settle for a new normal that’s less than you deserve. Go to coachingwithkrista.com and click work with me for details and the next steps. I can’t wait to meet you.