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A neurologist’s perspective on loss, grief, and our brain

When Kristina and I chose the theme of this year’s programme to be on Loss and New Beginnings, we were interested in exploring loss from different perspectives and disciplines. Neuroscience was one discipline that interested us; how does loss and grief affect our brain? How do our brains respond following traumatic losses?

Through our research, we fell upon a book called “Before and After Loss: A neurologist’s perspective on loss, grief, and our brain” written by neurologist Dr. Lisa M. Shulman. I am still in the early pages of the book and it is already an emotional and tough read but I am very intrigued and fascinated by what the writer has to say.

In 2012, Lisa’s husband, Dr. William Weiner, who was also a neurologist died 17 months after he found out he had cancer. Lisa decided to write this book to talk about their personal experience with illness and loss and also the science and psychology of grief and loss. She believes that even though the experience of grief can be overwhelming, yet understanding the science behind it “can dispel mystery and restore a sense of control.’ Her book not only explores the experience of profound loss but also focuses on the transition from grief to emotional restoration and healing.

Journaling: In the book, the writer talks about how she and her husband agreed to start writing a journal from the earliest days of his diagnosis for personal reflections and thoughts during that extremely painful period and how those journals were developed into a book. She writes:

“I became aware of moments when suffering was relieved by transforming waves of emotion into words and coherent sentences. Where emotion was amorphous, words on a page were reassuringly concrete. It was months later that I recognized my healing ritual was simply journaling. Journaling involves telling your story, being mindful in describing experience. Our stories contain layers of meaning to explore by giving voice to memory and emotion. Seeing the story on the page demystifies traumatic events and lessens the hold these events have on us. As we recall and unravel our experience, insight deepens and bewilderment lessens. We see things with more perspective. We think more clearly. And our interpretation deepens over time— days, months, and years later when we return to read our own words, literally making reflections on reflections.”

In this post, I am going to share snippets from the early pages of the book that I found interesting and helpful.


“I expected grief to be unbearable sadness, but it wasn’t that at all.

It was profound instability.

Losing bearings, losing identity, losing your coherent self.

Where life is distorted, spooling out in a surreal string of events.

Where sorrow is expected, and altered reality arrives.”

“Grieving is a protective process. It’s an evolutionary adaptation to help us survive in the face of emotional trauma.”

“We’re united by the experience of loss. But our losses are different and our sources of comfort and support vary. (…) Grief is personal, not shared. Grief is a distinctive experience that doesn’t fit with other challenges.”

“The derivation of the word grief is “to burden,” as if people experiencing grief are weighed down by external troubles. But grief is a consuming internal process. The injury is hidden, even from us.”

Self-Efficacy and Growth

“Self-efficacy is the confidence we have in our ability to handle challenges and difficult situations. Importantly, self-efficacy improves with better knowledge, insight, and tools to manage our situation. A better sense of control helps us find a path forward. Grief is perilous. It leaves us exposed. Our experiences are personal. We’ll survey the landscape of loss and healing, but in the end, the answers come from within.”

“As we grapple with loss, let’s be thoughtful about healing, restoration, and growth. Let’s not be satisfied with healing and restoration alone, let’s strive for growth. Healing results in the survival of a coherent self after traumatic loss. Growth recasts today’s insurmountable problems as tomorrow’s opportunities.”

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. —LAO TZU”

--All quotes from “Before and After Loss: A Neurologist's Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain” by Lisa M. Shulman, MD

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