Monday, December 31, 2007

Why Grief Hurts

Let me begin with a bold statement: Humans have not evolved for tens of thousands of years. That is merely my opinion, seeing as I wasn't here 65 thousand years ago to compare ;-) My reason for stating this pertains to why we as humans behave in the ways that we do, and that while we may live in the modern world, the roots of our behaviors in many cases extend back thousands and thousands of years. It is not like we grew a second head some years back as a way to adapt to modern life. Nor are we likely to do so anytime soon. I believe our behaviours have changed little in the last 50 thousand years or so.

Have you ever asked yourself why grief hurts? I'm not talking about the obvious answers here. Obviously we grieve for the loss of our loved one, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But why does it hurt so much? Pain is a biological response. It is an interesting question, yes? I mean, of all the possible bodily sensations, why does our body feel pain, as opposed to say tingling or numbness or heat or cold? Why pain?

I'm halfway through John Bowlby's monumental work, Attachment and Loss. It is not light reading by any means, written as it is for a professional audience, not Joe Blow on the street. It was recommended to me by a speaker at my monthly grief support group over a year ago. The author's approach is from the perspective of grief as a behavior.

In volume two of this three-volume book, Separation: Anxiety and Anger, he explains one property of pain [pg 171]:

Another special property of pain is, of course, its power to promote learning. Countless experiments demonstrate how rapidly and firmly an animal learns to recognize a situation in which it has experienced pain and to respond thenceforth by avoiding it. After such learning, an animal no longer relies on the hazardous proximal clue of pain but comes instead to use some distal clue that gives time and space in which it can take precautions. The advance look-outs are alerted to identify and beware of a new clue.

Even though physical pain may be more highly correlated with potential danger than are some of the other natural clues, it is not infallible. For example, medical attention may be painful but is usually not dangerous; whereas a truly dangerous condition, such as internal haemorrhage, may be accompanied by no pain. That is but one example of a serious danger that is either without natural clues or heralded by faint ones only.

If we accept this view, it would seem that the pain we experience when we grieve is an avoidance signal that is telling us to change our behavior. Somehow, our body knows that we are in danger of some kind. And it is not infallible — this bodily signal could be a mistake.

A few pages on, Bowlby speculates on a possible cause of this signal [pg 175]:

It is perhaps easy to understand that for a young child or an old person to be alone is a risk. But, it may be protested, that can hardly be true also for a healthy adult. Reflection, however, strongly suggests that it is.

It seems very probable that, were comparative figures available, it would be found that even for healthy men and women in Western countries there are many situations in which risk of injury or death is greater when a person is alone than when in company. Walking in city streets at night is a case in point. It is not for nothing that in certain areas policemen patrol in pairs. Those who take part in active sports, moreover, are aware that to be alone carries added risk. Whether climbing mountains, swimming, exploring caves, or sailing the seas, to be alone is hazardous, sometimes because in detecting danger two heads are better than one, sometimes because an injury that would present no problem to a pair can prove fatal to a singleton.

Now, if our body was simply recognizing that we are now alone and sending us constant pain signals as an avoidance reminder, it would seem that the remedy would be to run out and become attached to someone new. From what I have read, however, getting involved with another person immediately following the death of a spouse does not cause the pain to end — it may instead delay the pain or suppress it. Something else seems to be at play here.

Is being alone truly a great danger? Bowlby continues [pg 186]:

Even when a definition of real danger is agreed, however, there remain great difficulties for each of us in assessing it. For example, for an individual to calculate accurately when and in what degree he and his interests are endangered requires him to have a comprehensive knowledge of the world about him and to be able reliably to predict results. How many of us are qualified in these respects? It is easy to talk of real danger, but very difficult to estimate it.

It is indeed easy to forget that what is held to be publicly and permanently real is never more than some schematic representation of the world that happens to be favoured by a particular social group at a particular time in history. To some people during some periods to be afraid of ghosts is realistic. To other people during other periods to be afraid of germs is realistic. In matters of reality we all stand in danger of being arrogantly parochial.

That, however, is not to assert that everything is subjective, that there is no reality. The difficulty in using reality as a criterion lies, not in there being no reality, but in our imperfect capacity to comprehend it. That a child has an imperfect capacity to comprehend what is or may be truly dangerous is usually taken for granted. That the capacity of an adult is greater often by only a small margin tends to be forgotten.

What I have learned from The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing and other books is that, while we may not be able to mentally perceive our environment with any great degree of accuracy, our body, conversely, is very good at determining reality. Intelligence is not localized to the brain; rather, our entire body is intelligent.

In my next post, I'll conclude this brief theory of mine and explain that, in my opinion, our body does accurately perceive a real and present danger as a result of our loss, that the pain is in fact warranted, and that changing our behaviour can and does result in the lessening and eventual cessation of our pain. Stay tuned.


obakesan said...


you wrote: If we accept this view, it would seem that the pain we experience when we grieve is an avoidance signal that is telling us to change our behavior.

but I disagree. I mean logically what behaviour needs changing? When my lovely wife died it was not cause by my behaviour (she had a brain tumor).

I believe that we suffer pain simply because the emotions are tied up with that part of the brain.

I believe its more related to things which would keep us in our comittment relationship, and that if we try to leave it we feel pain.

Sadly there is the problem it causes when we did not choose to part.

obakesan said...


I still come back to your site and examine writings. It has been some 5 months now since my love died.

Some of the things I read there seem more agreeable now than they did when I first read them. However clearly we percieve the world differently and our "feelings" in "feeling out our grief" are different.

But none the less thanks for your site.

I agree that Grief provides the opportunity to learn. I have spent a lot of time recently covering the love my wife and I shared.

Robert Heinlein wrote: Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.

On that subject I put on my own blog: To me at least a significant part of love is trust, trust that extends beyond lending your material things. People often talk about giving of yourself, but what does that mean? Time? Energy?

To give the other person power over yourself is what I think its about.