This recent story on NPR on the ways that grief and grieving changes the brain really caught my eye not only because of my intense relationship with death and dying and grief and grieving — thanks AIDS crisis! — and my interest in brain plasticity, but also because it adds a layer of explanatory richness and insight into what is happening right now in our country. Of course, I immediately related the content to our political situation and MAGA Nation’s reaction to Trump losing the 2020 election. Spoiler: it contrasts sharply with how the left reacted to Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
The article is an interview Berly McCoy interviews University of Arizona professor of clinical psychologist and grief researcher, Mary-Frances O’Connor about the changes that occur in the brain as we grieve losses. We’ll focus on two aspects of her research: (1) the emotions of grief and grieving and (2) the effects of prolonged grief or what we used to call complicated grief. We’ll start with a quick overview of what we mean by grief and grieving.
Grief and Grieving
GRIEF is the emotional state that is experienced immediately after a significant loss, usually of a close loved one, pet, or possession. It can also occur after the loss of other things like jobs or beliefs.
GRIEVING, on the other hand, is the process of adapting to the loss that triggered grief.
Grief is shock and disbelief. It hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. Grieving takes time. It helps us shift our world view from one where our loved one is with us to one where they are not. According to O’Connor, our brain literally encodes the “we” of the relationship when we think of our loved ones. Your family unit will encode in your brain as a distinct entity just like it encodes me and you. So, when one of the members of we passes out of your life, your brain has to rewire itself to account for the absence.
We know from other studies that emotional pain is as real and severe as physical pain, so during that process of rewiring, we experience the absence over and over again adjusting memories and reactions to experiences as we go.
Our grief will end, grieving will not. The pain of it all will diminish, but you can miss someone for the rest of your life.
Much like Clinton’s loss in 2016, MAGA Nation were grief-stricken when Biden was declared the winner of the election. It was a normal understandable reaction. And, just like many Democrats needed some time to process Clinton’s loss, Trump’s supporters would need time to adjust their assumptions about the nation’s government without Trump in it. So far, MAGA Nation’s reaction is normal.
Emotions and Grief
Grief seems to turn the emotional volume up to a head-banging eleven. Our emotions are somewhat out of control and can cause us to overreact without warning. Suddenly, every calling plan commercial becomes a weep fest, every driver that cuts us off threatens road rage. Every invitation is answered with numbness and disinterest.
In the past, we had assigned emotional stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We tended to take them more literally than they were meant. Not everyone goes through everyone of them. Not everyone goes through them in that order. It’s more of a pupu platter situation where you get to choose and pick your favorites.
As go through grieving, as we adapt to our new reality, the emotional intensity diminishes. It varies from person to person, situation to situation, but for most of us the intensity dies down; we return to equilibrium with only occasional forays into the emotions of grief; and, eventually, we are back to our new normal life.
Throughout the past year, the emotions in MAGA Nation have been intense. They are extremely angry and volatile. Any little thing sets them off. They punch Walmart greeters for asking the wear a mask. They verbally assault school children and teachers for mitigating #COVID19. They assaulted the nation’s capitol during the 6 January Insurrection. They make threatening phone calls against election workers, healthcare workers, and eductionalists.
Prolonged Grief Disorder
finding a grief counselor
If you’ve found your grief being reactivated, please consider taking advantage of these services to find a grief counselor near you:
- The Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University has a page that will help you find a CGT trained therapist near you.
- Psychology Today has a grief counselor locator page, as well.
For more immediate help, try one of these resources:
- Just Answer’s Mental Health Hotline has two possibilities:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline
If you need help in the US, UK, India, or UK, this post has some helpful links:
Occasionally, these emotions get stuck. When they do, we begin to talk about prolonged grief disorder.
PROLONGED GRIEF DISORDER is the pervasive yearning for our loved one who has passed. It commonly occurs after a sudden expected passing like that caused by suicide, homicide, accident, or natural disaster or that of a child or spouse. It occurs in about ten percent of the grieving population. Naturally, the people with the disorder turn to ways of coping: drugs, alcohol, and substance abuse, suicidal ideation, gesture, and acts, but also sleep disturbance and diminished immune functioning.
The symptoms of the disorder are very similar to those of grief only they persist over a longer period of time and begin interfering with the daily functioning of life. It’s similar to PTSD in the sense that the person is stuck in that emotional moment of grief.
There is a tendency to enter into relive the decisions that led up to the death. Imagining different possibilities and different outcomes. This kind of ruminating about the “what if’s” helps keep the person stuck as if they could actually arrive at a different result than the person dying.
MAGA Nation and Prolonged Grief Disorder
It made sense that MAGA Nation would react to Trump’s loss with something resembling prolonged grief disorder. They had been set up for it:
- TRUMP’S LOSS WAS UNEXPECTED. Trump had softened up the base by proclaiming in the years leading up to the election that the only way he could lose would be due to malfeasance. So, when he lost, his base could and wouldn’t accept it. It made the loss more traumatic and held out hope for a different outcome.
- THEY LOST SOMETHING PRECIOUS. For MAGA Nation there was an unhealthy dysfunctional enabling relationship with Trump. He voiced their grievances and acted out in ways that they could only previously dream of. He gave them permission to be as racist and misogynist as they wanted to be. He confirmed their interpretation of the world — Their failures weren’t their fault, it really was because the liberals cheated in the election and were putting undeserving PoC in line ahead of them to achieve the American dream.
- THEY HAD INVESTED IN DELUSION. One of the most important parts of cognitive dissonance is committing to the delusion, investing so much that you can’t really turn back. #COVID19 was the perfect foil for this investment. After refusing to mask and vax and causing so much unnecessary death and suffering, who could possibly recant? After insurrecting on 6 January and openly supporting anti-democractic means of winning the 2022 elections, who could recant? To go against Trump and MAGA would mean to admit that you were culpable in the 800,000+ #COVID19 deaths, the suffering of millions, and destruction of the world’s oldest most successful democracy.
- THEY ARE RUMINATING ON THE POSSIBILITIES. Trump and his allies have kept just a sliver of hope alive that the 2020 elections can be legally overturned. First it was the court cases, now it is the forensic audits, and later it will be the anti-democratic nullification of votes in the 2022 election.
All of it adds up to keeping MAGA Nation stuck in the early stages of grief and grieving. They are incapable of moving on past the initial loss and accepting the outcome of the 2020 election. In that sense it is part and parcel with Hitler’s Propaganda Playbook, the induction of mass psychosis, and the use of waves of terror to maintain control over the base and keep them in a state of inflamed passions where (a) they’ll literally believe anything no matter how outlandish and (b) they’re willing to commit acts of violence such as the 6 January Insurrection.
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