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where in the brain does grief reside?

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I don’t know the exact cause of my father’s death 40 years ago. He’d been complaining of heart and circulatory problems for years and his death was certified as “heart failure.” Dad’s malaise seemed always more psycho-spiritual than physical. Along with most of his generation, he was cursed with having lived during and after The War — complicated by the death of his wife and two children, loss of four brothers near Stalingrad, brain injury, shame, disorientation, poverty, and what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2008 study refers to the link between prolonged and unabated grief (“complicated grief” or CG) and activity in the nucleus accumbens, a forebrain area associated with reward, pleasure, fear, and addiction. Research subjects showed marked brain activity in response to reminders of traumatic loss “which may interfere with adapting to the loss in the present.” 

A 2010 review of the literature posits complicated grief as an attachment disorder and suggests that “personal factors, in particular insults to a sense of security caused by weak parental bonding in childhood, present a vulnerability to the onset of CG later in life” (p. 690). 

These and related investigations* shed light on my father’s prolonged grief. I understand that losses in childhood and adulthood are interconnected, cumulative, and probably inter-generational. I’m relieved to learn that grief resides in the forebrain and not necessarily indicate a flawed personality of someone who’s unable to ‘get over it.’

sources: O’Connor, M-F., et al. (2008). Craving love? Enduring grief activates brain’s reward center. NeuroImage, 42(2), 969-972. Lobb, E.A., et al. (2010). Predictors of complicated grief: A systematic review of empirical studies. Death Studies, 34(8), 673-698. *I apologize for my naive sherry-picking from the literature; it’s new territory for me.


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