This Is Your Brain on Grief

When you look up the definition of trauma, the first result is “a deeply distressing and disturbing experience- “a personal trauma like the death of a child.” Perhaps my brain somehow knew this when it decided to go down the triggered rabbit hole of grief recently.

A more accurate definition of trauma is, when a person has an experience that overwhelms the nervous system and typically leaves a lasting imprint- trauma is a stress response that remains frozen in time within the person. Experiences affect everyone differently, and it is how our bodies and brains can cope (or not) with these experiences that dictate its lasting imprint.

The loss of a parent, at any age, can definitely be a cause of trauma- and in my case, it is. People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. The post traumatic events that have followed my mother’s death are why I’m here today, to inform, educate and hopefully bring about understanding to those in your world- or for yourself.

I have been dealing with and working through, very quietly, intense episodes of anxiety, anger and sadness since my mom died. My counselor assuredly tells me that this is the grief process, my body and brain are navigating the high seas of grief- it’s expected. As a counselor in training and a long-time meditator, part of my brain feels so silly for needing help with this- but I’m here to tell everyone, please, please ask for help when you need it- no one can navigate these high seas alone.

To shine light on a day in the life of my grief-drenched brain: Recently, I sent my son off to school, on a typical weekday. Absolutely nothing was different about this day, except one tiny thing- I didn’t cut his grapes in half for his lunch- and instead, he took whole grapes to school. Let this detail sink in for a minute. The level of significance of this detail is so small, I couldn’t even measure it. Later that day, I checked the time- right before my son’s lunch- and my PTSD brain immediately inserted the following thought: He will go to lunch, laugh with his friends and choke on a grape. There will be no one there in time to help him and he will become unresponsive. Instead of replacing this thought or applying strategies I know that work for intrusive, irrational thoughts, I acted on this thought. I texted him- no response. I emailed him- no response. I texted his friend- no response. Remember what PTSD is, your brain is telling you that, what happened in the past will happen again. You lost your mom, you will lose someone else close to you. It’s a reality. For 40 minutes, I lived with this thought and reality and absolute panic in my body, and my physical symptoms indicated a flight, fight or freeze response. I meditated, I called my sister, I went for a walk- and nothing helped, until I heard from my son- which I did, not long after images of his unresponsive body on a cafetiera floor flooded my brain. This episode ended with my sobbing on the bathroom floor, being held by my husband, who, by now, understands this process and just holds me. Nothing in those moments brought relief until my irrational thought was appeased.

As I continue to navigate this journey- please know- those grieving or dealing with any type of event or experience that has caused them trauma, are trying their best to work against the enormity of their grief brain. They need your assurance, your non-judgement and your hugs, because eventually they will heal and be ok. They will eventually have an enormous power to comfort others during these times because of this- and heck, may even become counselors themselves. ;)