We Are not Alone: The Phantom-Pain of the Brain's Grief

I've had a rough past week.

We have lived with a dependable family member for 18 years -- the AlarmCat. We called him this because of his reliability and skill in managing the two humans of our household: wake up times (different for each of us), dinner time (depending on who was home to remind), bedtimes (again, different for each of the humans, one of whom was incredibly inconsistent and just had to be kept company after getting the other safely to bed-- or eventually yelled at that enough is enough - Get to bed! Yeow!!!)

Our AlarmCat was gradually getting older (aren't we all?!) and sicker. He was alternately having days of repeated vomiting, being shaky on his feet, and sleeping the day and night through -- then rallying to do all his usual routines and human-caretaking for a couple weeks. But the cycles were getting shorter and shorter and last week was the point at which it seemed necessary to stop his growing discomfort.

His last day was the best we could create together. I took the day off to spend it with him and he spent it doing all his favourite things (sink-drinking; condo-building hall-walking; coconut-oil eating; towel-drying; napping; shower-sipping; bed-cuddling – you get the picture, a busy ordinary day). I had to lift him up most places, but he was still enjoying them.

It was so hard to let him go, but it’s been even worse when I go home each night to his absence. When my husband left for a business trip a couple days after, it was the first night I spent alone in our condo – ever. It was horrible, coming home to no one chewing me out for being late for dinner, no company during my reading or television watching, no one to tell me it was high time to get to bed, to keep me company during hygiene routines, or to wake me up in the morning. No litter to clean before I leave in the morning, no one to wait for while he takes his daily hallway constitutional-walk. No reason to hurry home because someone is waiting for dinner -- even though I feel the pull to get home anyway. I kind of hear him and see him, I sometimes call for him when I get home, talk to him as if he's waiting in another room....but he's just Gone.

Yet he is also isn't Gone. Not yet. Not ever.

From a brain perspective (you knew it was coming, right??), death of someone close to us is like withdrawal from something (someone, in this case) we are addicted to and for which we have a physiological dependence.

Addiction by itself refers to engaging with something repeatedly and often, even in the face of negative outcomes (like gaming, smoking, compulsive eating, etc.), although it doesn't have to be negative (email is useful, but I'm definitely addicted!). (I'm ignoring here the use of "addiction" as a diagnosis of a disorder and just talking about the mechanism by which an addiction is established.)

The added element of dependence happens as the result of the external Something infiltrating itself into the very workings of our brain~body. It is more than just a "habit", no matter how strong or disruptive that habit may be. It literally becomes part of how our body functions - a drug active in the brain, for instance, takes over some of the chemical receptors and feedback loops of the brain's networks and becomes part and parcel of the brain itself.

What happens when that external Something is no longer available to the brain?


The brain, in its efficiency, "outsources" its usual functions to the external Something -- it actually builds the availability of that Something into its own processes. Making that Something no longer available without any way for the brain to gradually take back that function means discomfort at a minimum and, in the case of some drugs, even death as the body scrambles to manage its own functions again.

So what does this have to do with the AlarmCat?

When we are fully engaged with another person over an extended period of time -- sharing activities, experiences, emotional resonances -- our brain wraps itself around and incorporates that person -- until they have literally become part of how our brain functions. They aren't just in our world interacting with us -- they become part of how our brain works, the very networks of brain connections and responses that make us -- well -- Us.

When they suddenly aren’t there and our brain has to adjust around that absence — well, of course that’s “uncomfortable”, eh? Like a drug leaving our system on its own without preparation, all the networks that incorporated them have a "gap" where expectations are not met, where the stimulus for our response is missing. Like the phantom pain of a missing limb that the brain hasn't quite accepted as "gone" yet, we have the emotional pain of our "phantom relationship".

This isn't to say that the pain isn't real and valid. In fact, I want to validate that pain even further by pointing out just how real --- how physical -- the emotional loss is. It is not just the loss of the person's presence, but the very real separation of the Us that remains from that part of ourselves that included them so intimately.

How might it influence our understanding of others' grieving or of our patience with our own grief in the face of loss if we understood it as a period of brain re-organization? How might we move through our grief differently if we knew that re-organization was a necessary and normal part of "withdrawal" from the relationship?  We will never lose that part of ourselves that was so intimately connected with our Other, just as we never lose other well-learned "habits". They will just become less painful, less obvious, and less triggered over time as the brain relies on those connections less and less.

But it hurts while it's happening. And that's ok.

Goodbye AlarmCat.