Falling into Grief

I wonder how much of grief is hormonal. I often think of the young women who have their lives mapped out, want to accomplish so much, are on the fast track to success and then . . . whap. They meet the love of their life, and all of a sudden, their lives, their plans, their dreams all change. Those sex/nesting/procreating hormones are so powerful, they can derail your life, make you see things in a different light, make you do things you would never do. Women who never wanted kids start dreaming of cradling sweet-smelling bundles, look for houses in neighborhoods with good schools, invest in SUVs. People call this maturity, but basically, it’s just hormones and preprogrammed DNA kicking in. After all, in terms of genetics and evolution, we are just DNA machines, and everything works together to make sure we do our duty.

Grief does the same thing. It makes us see things in a different light, makes us want things we’d never thought about, derails all our plans, makes us do and feel things we never thought possible. Changes us. People think grief is a choice, but it isn’t — it’s something that’s thrust on us. There is no way we can choose to feel things we never imagined possible. I thought grief was a quiet melancholy, a sweet nostalgia, a pervasive sadness. Grief, for me was none of those things. (Well, that’s not strictly true — it’s how I felt when my brother and my mother died, but did not at all resemble how I felt after my life mate/soul mate died.)

A friend of mine wrote me: I have done therapy for 40 years. I have worked with people who have lost kids, spouses, parents, dogs everyone and every kind of pet. I had NO clue what it was really like in spite of losing my best friends and parents. I think a therapist who counsels someone in grief should have gone through a loss like you and I have before she/he tries to help someone. God knows there are enough of us out here who REALLY know grief. NOW I am one of them. (I hope she doesn’t mind I passed this on, but it is too important to keep to myself.)

Before people fall in love, they haven’t a clue of its true power, and then it washes over them in a life-changing moment. Before you fall into grief, you haven’t a clue of its true power,  but it too washes over you in a life-changing moment, and all but drowns you. Even though I’ve experienced so much of what grief does to a person, I still can’t believe its power. The way grief reflects falling in love as in a very dark mirror, there has to be a hormonal component. I know stress releases hormones, as does shock. Adrenaline courses through your body, and there are changes in brain chemistry that produce hormones. Your immune system goes on hold.

Do our bodies know we are no longer mated and ratchet back the DNA machine? I do know there is some effect on the limbic system. The lizard brain, which has been slumbering peacefully beneath our consciousness, wakes up and screams, “What?? I could die?? Say it isn’t so!” That’s a bit fanciful, so many of us feel it deep inside, the hurt of an animal who suddenly realizes there is an end. (As if there isn’t enough to contend with when if comes to grief.)

I don’t suppose it really matters what causes the physiological changes of grief — hormones, stress, agony, lizard brains. The primary cause is what matters. Someone we were deeply connected to died, and we fell into grief.

4 Responses to “Falling into Grief”

  1. leesis Says:

    A very thought provoking article Pat. Interesting first paragraph. I’m not sure I agree with some of your ideas…particularly the derailing concept. I wonder at the idea that success is in the pipeline until the “whap” occurs…inferring that the person is not successful once they fall in love and have babies and I wonder about your presentation of this as in involuntary DNA imperative (I’m gay so I have to question that one :)). For me it is much deeper than that (whilst not ignoring biochemical reactions) and speaks of our deepest truth…that of our interdependency on each other and on our need for deep connection.

    But one thing you are absolutely spot on about is that we don’t know the power of falling in love nor the power of grief, nor indeed the power of love when ones baby is born until we actually experience it. The reality of life seems to be that our most intense experiences in life are about our deepest connection to each other. These experiences are life altering and this goes way beyond the DNA imperative.

    For me personally then questions upon questions arise. Why is this intimate connection our deepest need, our greatest joy? What is pain about? What is the sense of being alone about? How does our idea of separating off into couples and nuclear families contribute to our sense of loss when death occurs? Why are we so interdependent on each other, on the planet on everything else. And, what is death about?

    I know that many people feel they have their answers to that last question, some theologically, some via science but personally I don’t. Another bunch of folk seem to think we can’t answer such questions. I don’t agree. I think since many of us have dumped traditional theological answers or scientific reductionist responses as inadequate we’ve kind of given up questioning. I think we need to keep questioning because whilst we are subject to many biochemical reactions to life events there is a deeper reality.

    Of course none of this helps a person smack bang in the middle of grief. It still has to be lived through. But I’m convinced that we need to keep asking. I hope this makes sense to what you’ve written…I’m not sure it makes exact sense to me. I guess I just feel that once we truly understand more our experience of these events will be perceived differently…perhaps the pain will be the same but perceived differently. I’m not sure really but I am sure we don’t know enough to interpret meaning yet.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Leesis, I always like it when people think out loud here on my blog — most often when they’re not sure if they are making sense, they make the most sense to me. The only good thing about my grief is that I’ve met some wonderful people who are struggling with the same questions I am, and I’ve had some thought-provoking discussions.

      Your question, “What is death about?” haunts me. You’re right — many people do think they know the answer, but there is no way to know for sure, which is why it’s called a “belief” and not a “surety.” I do think there is a deeper reality, I’m just not sure our conscious selves are a part of it. We are so much a product of our genetics, our hormones, our brains (anyone who has had to cope with an Alzheimer’s sufferer or a loved one who had cancer in their brains, and found a stranger in that familiar body, knows how much the brain controls who we are), that I’m not sure how much of “us” survives.

      There is a theory that our bodies are like television channels, receptors for certain wavelengths, so that our “souls” actually reside outside our body.

      My friends laugh at me (affectionately) when I ask what we’re supposed to do with eternity. We have no mouths to talk, no hands to write, no arms to hug, no eyes to read or watch movies, no legs to walk.

      On the other hand, if human life is a spectrum as I postulated a few days ago, then perhaps the spectrum of a human life is the same sort of spectrum as light — beginning long before the visible part appears and ending long after the visible part disappears. Of course, the non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum aren’t light but sound and radiation and other invisible waves, so whatever exists outside of the visible human spectrum might be something completely different from we can ever imagine.

      I hold tight to your belief that life matters.

      • leesis Says:

        Pat I think that part of our journey is to ‘reach’ consciousness…though I’ve no bloomin’ clue what the destination is. I think it reasonable to assume that our current ‘aware’ consciousness is ‘part of it’ simply because all evidence leads one to see constant interrelationship of all things but I think it is only one skin on the proverbial onion and is indeed aware of very little of the depth and breadth of existence.

        What is death about haunts me too. I’ve seen grief bring down the strong and then twist those people in horrible ways in a society that has no time for it. I’ve felt the overwhelmingness of a loved one being Gone and collapsed in despair. But I’ve also experienced flashes…moments…where I saw something deeper, something more that has shown me at once the depth of my ignorence and inspired me to keep asking questions.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I think you’re right about the interrelationship of all things — after all, we are all made of stardust, and those particles are constantly moving from one person or thing to another. I still think this is why the loss of a long time mate is so difficult — you share the same space, breathe the same air, connect through the same particles, interchange dna via various viruses, and then abruptly, you are the only one in that space. Sort of like twins in vitro — when one dies, it affects the other for the rest of his life. Speaking of embryos — someone once said that we here on earth are embryos, and when we die, we are actually being born. An embryo, even if it were conscious of its life, would have no way of knowing what awaits him after his death/birth. (Because, in a way birth is a death, the death of what it once was and can never be again.)

          I also think the universe (including the after-universe) is totally different that we imagine. We seem to create it in the likeness of what we know, and that limits it. And us.

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