The Biology of Grief
Scientists know that the intense stress of grieving can affect the body in various ways, but much remains a mystery.
When someone you love dies, experts have a pretty good sense of the path that grief takes through the mind, but have only a general sense of how it progresses through the rest of the body. First is a shock in which you feel numb or intensely sad, angry, guilty, anxious, scatterbrained or not able to sleep or eat or any combination of the above. During those first weeks, people have increased heart rates, higher blood pressure and may be more likely to have heart attacks. Over their lifetimes, they may have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, infections, cancer and chronic diseases like diabetes. Within the first three months, research on bereaved parents and spouses shows that they are nearly twice as likely to die than those not bereaved, and after a year, they are 10% more likely to die.
With time, most people stabilise; they begin to learn how to more or less continue with their lives and function in society. But studies suggest that after 6 to 12 months, about 10% of bereaved people have not begun to function better. They get stuck in what is called ‘complicated grief’: they stay completely preoccupied with loss and persistent yearning, and remain socially withdrawn.
Scientists know that grief is not only psychological, it’s also physical. They know that it causes the brain to send a cascade of stress hormones and other signals to the cardiovascular and immune systems that can ultimately change how those systems function. But nobody knows how those systems act together to create the risks of diseases and even death.
Everything starts with the brain. It responds to the death by releasing certain hormones that fan out into the body, affecting the cardiovascular system and the cells of the immune system. Aside from that generality, however, the biology of grief has no clear chain of cause-and-effect that the biology of, say, diabetes, has.
Grief is of course the result of another hard-to-study state, human attachment or love. Humans are predisposed to form loving bonds and as soon as they do, the body is concerned about what happens when that person is gone. So all systems that functioned well now must accommodate the person’s absence. For most people, the systems adjust as our bodies are amazingly resilient.
One way to think about grieving is that the feeling of connection to the person who died gradually moves from preoccupying the mind to residing comfortably in the heart. If pain never quite goes away, then neither does love.