Coping With a Loss: How Grief Affects the Brain

image of daughter consoling mother - how does grief affect the brain

Losing a loved one is one of the most challenging experiences one can face. The emotional impact of grief can be overwhelming, often affecting not only our hearts but also our minds. Knowing how grief affects the brain can help us understand why we feel the way we do during these tough times. In this blog, we’ll explore the connection between grief and brain function and how to cope with the changes it brings.

What is Grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss, particularly the loss of someone close to us. It brings a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, and confusion. Grieving is a highly personal experience and can vary significantly from one person to another.

The Common Stages of Grief

Understanding the stages of grief can help us make sense of the emotions we experience during this difficult time. It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and each person’s path is unique. While not everyone goes through all these stages or in the same order, they provide a framework for recognizing and processing our feelings:

  • Stage 1: Denial: The first reaction is often shock and disbelief, making it hard to accept the reality of the loss. This stage acts as a defense mechanism, allowing us to gradually process the overwhelming emotions.
  • Stage 2: Anger: As the reality of the loss sets in, we may feel anger and frustration. These feelings can be directed at ourselves, others, or even the person who has passed away. Anger is a natural part of the healing process, helping us to release pent-up emotions.
  • Stage 3: Bargaining: During this stage, we might dwell on what could have been done differently to prevent the loss. We may find ourselves making deals with a higher power or ourselves in a desperate attempt to reverse or lessen the impact of the loss.
  • Stage 4: Depression: Profound sadness and regret can set in as we begin to understand the full extent of our loss. This stage is marked by intense feelings of emptiness and despair, making everyday activities feel overwhelming.
  • Stage 5: Acceptance: In the final stage, we start to come to terms with the reality of the loss. Acceptance doesn’t mean forgetting or moving on, but rather learning to live with the loss. We begin to find a new normal and adjust to life without our loved one.

How Grief Affects the Brain

Grief changes the way our brain works, affecting our emotions, thoughts, and even our physical health. Understanding these changes can help us cope better and find the support we need.

Emotional & Cognitive Impact of Grief

Grief deeply affects both our emotions and our thinking. Emotionally, we might feel extreme sadness, anger, or a sense of hopelessness. These feelings can be overwhelming and last for a long time. On the cognitive side, grief can make it hard to concentrate, remember things, and make decisions. Research done by Mary-Frances O’Connor, a psychology professor who specializes in grief and loss at the University of Arizona, shows that people with intense grief have more activity in the part of the brain that deals with pain and emotions, making it harder to manage these feelings.

Physical Effects of Grief

Grief doesn’t just affect our emotions and thoughts–it also impacts our physical health. Long-term grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, can change the structure and function of our brain. For example, stress from grief can shrink the hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps with memory and learning. Grief can also raise cortisol levels, a stress hormone that can harm the brain over time.

closeup image of therapist consoling patient - how does grief affect the brain
How to Cope With Grief

While it’s important to know how our brain is affected by grief, it’s equally as important to understand how to cope with grief altogether. Coping with grief is a deeply personal process, and finding what works best for you can take time. Here are some strategies that can help you navigate through your grief:

  • Seek Support: Talking to friends, family, or a support group can provide comfort and understanding. Sharing your feelings with others who have experienced similar losses can make you feel less alone.
  • Professional Help: Therapists and counselors can offer guidance and coping strategies tailored to your needs. They can help you process your emotions and develop healthy ways to deal with your grief.
  • Self-Care: Taking care of your physical health is crucial during this time. Ensure you are eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Physical well-being can significantly impact your emotional health.
  • Express Your Emotions: Find ways to express your grief, whether through writing, art, or talking. Keeping a journal, creating art, or simply talking about your loved one can be therapeutic.
  • Establish Routines: Maintaining a daily routine can provide a sense of normalcy and control. Even small routines can make a big difference in helping you feel grounded.
  • Allow Yourself to Grieve: Give yourself permission to feel sad, angry, or whatever emotions come up. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your feelings rather than suppress them.
  • Memorialize Your Loved One: Creating a tribute or engaging in activities that honor your loved one’s memory can be comforting. This could be anything from planting a tree in their memory to participating in a charity event they cared about.
  • Avoid Major Decisions: Try to delay making major life decisions until you feel more emotionally stable. Grief can cloud your judgment, and it’s often best to wait until you’re thinking more clearly.
  • Stay Connected: Isolation can make grief harder to bear. Stay connected with your community, whether through social engagements or other activities.
  • Be Patient with Yourself: Healing takes time, and everyone’s grief journey is different. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate through this difficult period.

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Finding what helps you cope is key to moving forward and finding peace.

Grief Counseling in Berwick, Pennsylvania

If you’re struggling with grief, Dr. John G. Kuna and Associates in Berwick, Pennsylvania, is here to help. Our experienced and compassionate team offers personalized grief counseling to support you through this difficult time. We understand the complexities of grief and are dedicated to providing the care and guidance you need to heal. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and take the first step toward finding peace and comfort.


Grief affects our emotions, thoughts, and even the way our brain works. Studies have shown that grief can change brain activity and structure, helping us understand why it feels so overwhelming. Knowing these effects can guide us in finding the right support and care to help us through the healing process.