A cognitive interpretation of grief

Important people are a great source of light in our minds.  When they leave this earth, it feels like a light has gone out.  But if we have learned the best of them, then the good carries on. Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Grief is an odd thing.  it doesn’t play by the rules.  One minute you are coping perfectly well with your day, doing just enough, getting by… when WHAM – something triggers a response in you, and you’re off down a mental path you didn’t predict.  To know at those times whether you are ‘coping’ or ‘not coping’ is a bit of an art.  The truth is, you have become unpredictable, and you cannot always know from moment to moment whether you are OK.  This presents particular problems when people ask you how you are.  ‘Fine,’ you say, wondering what on earth that means.

It is common to privilege feelings when it comes to grief.  A popular view is that feelings matter more.  The mythical ‘stages of grief’ – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are often interpreted in a ‘how do you feel’ type way.

But I would like to propose a different way of conceptualising grief.  A cognitive one, considering the mind as a kind of computer struggling to reorient itself in a changed environment.

I don’t really think it’s appropriate, even, to consider thoughts and feelings as separate.  Often, we say ‘so-and-so thinks too much’, as though it is some kind of crime against ‘normal’ living.  Some theories of personality rely, even, on differentiating between thinking and feeling.  ‘I’m a thinky person,’ someone will say, ‘whereas so-and-so is touchy-feely.’  But this may be a misunderstanding of what it is to think, and what it is to feel.

Just for this article, I would like to offer a view of humans as primarily cognitive beings, and of feelings as a type of thinking aid, or thinking short-cut when normal thinking isn’t getting us anywhere.

Think of computers as they now are.  In this age of cloud-based computing, our PCs are always tidying themselves up in the background, downloading software, deleting unwanted files, sorting, ordering and registering information.

When you are not using your computer, it will whirr away in the background, using most of its processing power to reorient itself for better performance in the future.  When you start interacting with your computer, it will suddenly cancel its background tasks and focus on what you want it to do, leaving the background stuff for later.

You function in a similar way.  When you sleep and dream, your mind reorganises and reorients itself.  Your daydreams, even, are ways of re-registering and re-orienting your friends, enemies and environment inside your mind.  When you meditate, you are creating empty space in which your mind can flow freely, without being overly affected by external events.  This enables it to balance its energy and find peaceful flow and focus.

In the above way, our minds are always creating a stable vision of our own life, a web of meanings that helps us to orient ourselves in the world with confidence.  Part of this process involves developing ‘landmarks’, people and things that act as significant objects around which we build our meaning.  Your parents or significant carers acted as landmarks during your childhood.  They acted like lighthouses or beacons in your brain, around which you built your schemas, your webs of meaning, your patterns of thinking.  It is a very efficient way of working, because you have a consistent measuring-tool.  Have you ever seen how a child looks at a parent for guidance as to what to think?  It is far easier to adopt others’ thoughts like this, than to build everything from scratch yourself.

When you lose such a person, in childhood or adulthood, it puts a big hole just where that lighthouse was.  You won’t be aware of it, but there are an infinite number of situations which you contemplated with the help of that important object.  Even when you were out shopping, you considered everything with a little bit of your brain using that person as your calibration, your orientation.  It’s not conscious.  You just do it.  When they are gone, every single thought is flavoured with the realisation that they are not there as they once were.

After a loss, your mind has to rethink literally everything.  Significant others are not simply people you bump into when you see them.  They are carried in your mind as continuous objects.  When their light goes out, then one of your lights goes out.  And then begins the important work of teaching your mind to orient itself without their help.

This reorientation becomes quite a foreground task.  When you are having to work out how to think and do everything without your usual lighthouse, you do not have time for the background tasks which usually maintain your brain.  Unfortunately, this is just the time when your brain desperately needs to download new software more suitable to ‘life without x’, to remap the world with other objects taking the strain that ‘object x’ used to take.

This is why it is so important to take time out.  When a computer needs a good reboot, a major reorganisation, it has to say goodbye for a while to its usual tasks.  There is just too much going on in the background to live its normal life.  You are the same.  If you try to live your normal life without grieving, without taking time out, then you may be starving your mind of essential redesign time.

So sleep for as long as you need to.  Sometimes simply vegetate, keeping yourself away from urgent situations and demanding tasks.  You will have time for all that when you are reoriented a little.  For now, allow a good deal of emptiness to fill your life; plus the company of those whom you feel can become the lighthouses-in-your-mind that you need to carry on effectively.

By all means keep doing some of what you usually do.  That will help orient you in your transitional phase.  But don’t be too hard with yourself.  Make sure that you work at maybe 30 or 40 per cent of your usual capacity.  That way, you will have space to reorganise.

You may ask the valid question: ‘Why can’t we just keep lost people in our minds as permanent objects?’  It’s a good question.  And I think the answer’s to do with our tendency towards attachment as a short cut to knowledge.  When we were younger, getting to know others, we short-circuited ourselves to make the process of knowledge faster.  We developed severe attachment to our parents or guardians; we developed a temporary obsession with a lover (it’s called falling in love).  These are all ways we enlist our whole bodies in making sure we maximise learning from significant others.

We pay the price, though, at the other end of the process.  We have become over-attached, our minds and bodies dependent on the presence of that person in the world.  When they are no longer available, we feel it, boy do we feel it.  All new learning is over, and all we have are memories.  Just as the early stages of attachment are like a big ecstasy, so the early stages of grief are like a big sulk.  The common factor is our hyper-dependence on significant others for the development of our knowledge and orientation.

Fortunately, we can also become wise.  Wisdom is the realisation that no one object is, in itself, a lighthouse; that no story is perfect; that no truth is THE truth.  Eventually we can realise that we have internalised some good things from that person; that they are a kind of eternal voice in our head, talking to us, embedded in our understanding like a computer program.  This, in its time, enables us to continue living independently.  The agonising period of detachment is over, and we are comfortable in our aloneness.

Sometimes, though, people get stuck, unable to detach from their primary objects once lost.  They get bitter, and seem perpetually angry.  They are easily disorientated, and impossible to satisfy.  They are travellers without a lighthouse, because they have not learned to internalise the learning of their teachers.  So they are wandering the earth, lost, looking for redress, but unable to find it.  They are like computers that have lost their calibration programs, and have to negotiate life without a solid grounding, without a clear map they can rely on.

How can you avoid being like one of those lost souls?  By developing a passion for learning, and by gently attaching yourself to teachers whom you trust to help you negotiate the world.  And, most importantly, by internalising that learning, so that, ultimately, when they have gone, the best of them lives on in you.