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.