BW 016: Four Reasons Why Grief is Hard

tips Jan 10, 2023

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The Transcript is below.


Have you ever wondered why grief hurts so much?  Or why we can feel like we're adapting to the new way of life. We've accepted that our person isn't coming back, but then we find ourselves almost reverting or going back to being in denial and thinking that we have this weird balance of I know they're not coming back, but I think this is just a bad nightmare and I'm having a hard time reconciling that. But wait a minute, I felt like I already settled those feelings. I got to nerd out a little bit and I spent some significant time reading a really cool book that I want to share with you, and I wanted to better understand why our brains work the way they do. Why we have such a hard time battling grief or understanding what's normal, what's not normal, if there is such a thing, and just why our minds and our emotions kind of work the way that they do.

We talk about:

  • The 5 stages of grief
  • Why we don’t go backwards in grief
  • How grief is like a broken bone
  • The lack of understanding of what it means to grieve in our culture



“One of the reasons why grief is painful is just our understanding, or rather lack of understanding what it means to grieve, what to expect when a person that we love so intimately passes on or dies, and what the healing journey looks like. We're really, as a culture, just not educated on that and don't talk about it nearly.”

“One of the biggest points of frustration or fears that several of my widow friends have is that they're reverting and the reality is we can't go backwards. As you're healing and you're moving forward in life, there is no going backwards. The reality of these stages of grief or of these components is that we're just ping ponging all over the place.”

“The challenge is that there is no perfect timeline for grief and for grieving. There is no either or, there's not a well you've grieved and now you're done with that and you're moving on to being completely healed and this new life and this new journey. Congratulations. Here's your graduation certificate. You're now moved away from grief. That is just not the reality of what happens in grieving.”


The Brave Widow Community is a place where you can connect with other widows, find hope and healing, and begin to dream again for the future.  Learn more at  


Hey guys, I’m Emily Jones

I was widowed at age 37, one month shy of our 20 year wedding anniversary.  Nathan and I have four beautiful children together.  My world was turned completely upside down when I lost him.  With faith, community, and wisdom from others, I’ve been able to find hope, joy, and dream again for the future.  I want to help others do the same, too!



Twitter @brave_widow

Instagram @brave_widow


YouTube @bravewidow



Emily: Hey guys. Welcome to episode number 16 of The Brave Widow Show. I'm so excited that you decided to join me today. Now, have you ever wondered why grief hurts so much? or why we can feel like we're adapting to the N new way of life. We've accepted that our person isn't coming back, but then we find ourselves almost reverting or going back to being in denial and thinking that we have this weird balance of.

I know they're not coming back, but I think this is just a bad nightmare and I'm having a hard time reconciling that. But wait a minute, I felt like I already settled those feelings. I got to nerd out a little bit and I spent some significant time reading a really cool book that I wanna share with you, and I wanted to better understand why. , our brains work the way they do. Why we have such a hard time battling grief or understanding what's [00:01:00] normal, what's not normal, if there is such a thing, and just why our minds and our emotions kinda work the way that they do. So I, if you're on YouTube, I'm gonna share a picture of this book.

I've mentioned it a few times on the show already, but it's called the Grieving Brain the Surprising Science of how we learn from Love and Loss by Dr. Mary Francis O'Connor. Now, I'm not a psychologist by any means or a licensed therapist or counselor, so I'm gonna throw that disclaimer out there. However, I have personal experience.

I've spoken with many widows and I wanted to share with you my layman's interpretation, if you will, of some pretty cool things from this book that really helped me make sense of why our brains are wired the way that they are, or at least understanding that's how they're wired and that's how we'll be able to at least have a better understanding of the [00:02:00] grieving process in general.

So I'll tell you a little bit about the author. She. Is a clinical psychologist who earned her degree or her PhD from the University of Arizona in 2004 and completed her post-doctoral fellowship in psycho neuroimmunology at U C L A, the Semial Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Dr.

O'Connor here, she has really some amazing studies. She references studies that others have done with different animals, with humans, with all kinds of things just to understand our sense of bonds and memories and grieving and. Really more in depth about how our brains are wired. So I'm not gonna go into a lot of the technical components of what she mentions, but if that's something that if you're like me, you like to nerd out a little bit about those types of things.

I think this is a great book for you to check out. You can find it on Amazon or her website is the grieving And on Twitter, [00:03:00] she's at Dr. F O like Mary Francis O'Connor. So please go check her out and I'm gonna apologize to her in advance if I misstate something or explain it, maybe not the way she intended.

I am gonna do the best I can to share with you some things that I thought were helpful for me. All right, so today I'm gonna share with you four reasons why grief is hard. The first one is, the five stages of grief. So many of us have seen these five stages of grief. They were developed by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, I believe, back in the sixties, maybe late sixties.

She published a book of Death and Dying and. If you haven't heard of the five stages of grief, this is a fairly common thing. You can Google it, you'll find all kinds of infographics and posters and flyers and information of the five stages of grief, and they are, one is denial. Two is anger, [00:04:00] three is bargaining, four is depression, and five is acceptance.

And initially when Kubler Ross developed the five stages of grief, her goal was to gain an understanding of the process someone goes through when they've been given a terminal diagnosis. So we've had some guests on the show. Their spouse received a terminal diagnosis and they're in anticipatory grief. And obviously their spouse is grieving as well for the finality of their life and the diagnosis that they received.

And so this was really her documentation and understanding of how people move from. Learning about the diagnosis to being in denial, to being angry and moving, then all the way up to acceptance. It was then modified and used or applied rather, to people who are grieving. But that wasn't really the intent and isn't necessarily an accurate picture of what happens.

So not to dismiss at all the work that was done or to [00:05:00] say that in no way. does this apply these five stages of grief, but there are some challenges with having the perception that's the journey of grief that we need to be on. So many times I'll hear people say, I feel like I'm going backwards. Like I feel like I move from being in denial to being angry, to finally accepting that my person's not coming back and I have to create a new life.

But then I find myself getting angry again or depressed or like I'm reverting back in these five stages of grief. And the challenge is that there. No perfect timeline for grief and for grieving. There is no either or, there's not a well you've grieved and now you're done with that and you're moving on to being completely healed and this new life and this new journey.

Congratulations. Here's your graduation certificate. You're now moved away from grief. [00:06:00] That is just not the reality of what happens in grieving, and certainly I'm still fairly early on in the journey, but I've spoken with many widows who are 10, 20, 30 years out from being widowed, and what everyone will generally advise is that your life continues.

To be modified and changed, and you grow around the grief, but that doesn't mean that it goes away. There is no, you've completed your journey of grief. Now you're living your best life, and you're not gonna feel sad anymore. You're not gonna feel angry anymore. . The other challenge with the five stages of grief is that not everyone grieves the same.

So maybe you have small children who are grieving a parent and they never cry, or maybe you've been grieving and you've never really been angry. or you've never gone through the stage of bargaining. This can really cause people to feel like they're not grieving [00:07:00] correctly or that they have a complicated grief or trauma, or that they're stuck.

And one of the biggest. Points of frustration or fears that several of my widow friends have is that they're reverting and the reality is we can't go backwards. As you're healing and you're moving forward in life, there is no going backwards. The reality of these. Stages of grief or of these components is that we're just ping ponging all over the place.

So one day you might feel angry, one day you might feel sad, one day you may feel happy, and it's all just part of the grieving process. Grief doesn't have to equal suffering or sadness. Grief can be love and appreciation for our person and some of the challenges that we have with bringing them with us into our life going forward.

One of the illustrations the author gives us [00:08:00] that I thought was really helpful is to think about grief like a broken bone. If you've ever had a broken bone, you do heal from that. It is possible to heal from that, and on the outside it's possible to look. and be able to function perfectly, normally, perfectly, like you did before.

And it's possible you could even improve the functionality you have with a limb or with an area of your body when you've had a broken bone. But let's say you break a leg or an arm and it heals. , even five years down the road, another physician could take an x-ray of that bone and they would be able to tell at one point that it was broken and that it's been healed.

So in a sense, grief is like a broken bone. It's you do heal and you do recover, but you're still forever changed by that and it will impact your. Think about even some of the positive things that may come out of grief. I, for one, have a greater appreciation for people, for connections and relationships.

I don't tend to [00:09:00] say, someday we need to do this, or Let's get together for lunch. At some point, I have a greater sense of urgency of spending time with people because I know it's easy for us to say, someday let's do this, and it never actually happens. I also tend to get. Less irritated by people, so less easily offended because I know that we all have our quirks and things that may get on each other's nerves, but at the end of the day, you still love and care about that person and it's not worth the frustration or irritability that can happen.

So this is one of the reasons why grief is painful is just our understanding, or rather lack of understanding what it means to grieve, what to expect when a person that we love so intimately passes on or dies, and what the healing journey looks like. We're really, as a culture, just not educated on that and don't talk about it nearly.[00:10:00]

The second reason why grief is so difficult and so painful is that our brain is continually reaching for something that isn't there. So think about in our minds, we have a virtual map and a virtual reality. So think about your, one of the great examples was a dining room table in your kitchen.

 And let's say the way that you have to walk to. From the living room to the refrigerator is you have to skirt around the dining room table or maybe you bump into it frequently and it's just one of those little annoyances that you've gotten used to.

And for the most part, you have this muscle memory, like you have this memory of, oh yeah, I need to like sidestep or skirt around this table to get to the fridge. I need to make sure I'm paying attention. And you just do it subconsciously. You really have stopped thinking about it. It's just something that has become part of your brain's virtual map and process.

But let's [00:11:00] say one night you wake up in the middle of the night, you need to get a drink of water. You walk from your bedroom into the living room, into the kitchen, and because you're tired and you're not really, fully thinking, you almost brace yourself to expect that you're gonna bump into this dining room table and you.

and that will send like a mini shockwave into your system to say wait a minute. Where's the table? The table's always here. Why isn't it here? And so it's the absence of something that brings awareness to our mind and our brain and causes almost this little shock of where's the table? The table should be here. Why is it not here? Did it get moved? What happened to it? And in a very, some. Simplified approach. Grief is very much the same. Your brain is constantly looking for that person or that thing that was always there.

Your brain also has a. List of [00:12:00] memories of patterns and habits that you've had for many years. A lot of widows will say that during the day they may be fine and they may be able to enjoy somewhat of a normal life, but when they go to bed at night, it's really hard. Or when they have holidays, birthdays, milestones, like they really brace for those moments because they know those moments are gonna be hard.

 During the day, we tend to have a highly variable schedule. So maybe we're working, maybe we're shopping, we're getting groceries, we're doing things with friends and family. But at night and on holidays, birthdays and milestones, we don't necessarily have a big variety of things that we're doing, especially being apart from our.

So as we go to bed each night, we may have a routine of we brush our teeth together, we get ready for bed. They're looking at their phone, I'm reading a book, and this is our habit and our routine. And there's not a lot of other things happening to distract us from the fact that [00:13:00] what our brain remembers is that every night for 5, 10, 20 years, that's pretty much been our nighttime routine.

And now that's disrupted. So your brain, Especially in those early days and early weeks and months, your brain is constantly looking for something that isn't there, and it can bring almost this refreshed wave of sadness and yearning for that person who isn't there for that empty spot beside you at bed, or for the fact that their robe isn't hanging in the same spot in the bathroom.

Your mind is constantly reminded that things are moved.

Now think about something like Christmas. So if you were together or married for let's say 10 Christmases, and it's only been two Christmases since you lost your person, think about how many times your brain associates Christmas and your person together. And because Christmas only happens once a year, [00:14:00] it's not you have the ability to frequently make new memories and new habits. Without that person with you, you've only had 10 times where it's very solidified in your mind that you're together, and then just two times that you haven't been together. Things like going to bed at night, things like running errands together.

We can somewhat be modified and move more quickly through the shock of that, because we do it so frequently. So if it's something I do on a daily basis, then it starts to become less shocking and less painful because in my mind it's making a new pattern. My mind is learning that. . Now when I go to bed, I'm not looking for anyone to be in the bed next to me.

I know that now it's been 30 nights, 60 nights, 365 nights that I no longer look for that person because this new pattern doesn't include them. Sometimes those more routine mundane tasks are easier to move through [00:15:00] than the bigger ones, just because you've gotten more reps in, you've had more exposure to that on a normalized basis versus these other incidents that are more difficult because they don't really come around that often, and your brain still has that very strong association between the milestone and the person who would be there with you

another great example I thought the author gave is just the disorientation of what happens when we go through steps and something we're used to being there. Isn't there? For example, let's say every day you like to get up and make breakfast. You take out the skillet, you put some eggs in there, you fry up some bacon, you make some biscuits.

You put all of that on your plate, you take your plate and set it down on the table, and you enjoy your breakfast. . But then let's say one day you're going through all those steps. So you're making the breakfast, you're putting your eggs, you're baking in there, you've got the biscuits going. You compile it all on [00:16:00] your plate.

You take your plate over to the table, and you sit down and you look down, and the food's no longer there. That can be very disorienting, and of course it would be very disorienting, but it's a simplified example again. of how, as we're living life, we're following the same steps, we're doing the same things, and all of a sudden we can look up or have this disorientation or this shock within our mind of wait a minute.

I don't ever go to the grocery store by myself, or I don't go to church or do these things by myself. Where's my person? What happened? And it's like this shock or realization. They're not with us. And so that's one of the reasons why grief can be so painful. Our brain also firmly believes in most cases as we're married and we're committed to that person and we say, tell death to us, part in our minds, we think of.

oh, maybe we'll make it to [00:17:00] 80 or 90 or a hundred and we'll both die together peacefully in our sleep. And that's really maybe the most thought that we give to it. But the reality is that we may not make it there, but our brains firmly believe and plan on us being together forever with that person.

So as we try to grasp the reality, , our future may look different. We have to come up with a new plan. Now our retirement dream still the same. Do we still want to do the same hobbies and things together? That really can be very disorienting to our minds and what we believe because we haven't ever really pictured life without that person.

And it's like we're being forced into a new reality that we haven't just had the time to really think up through and plan.

The third reason why grief is so hard and [00:18:00] so painful is that your mind is consistently searching for your spouse. , and we talked about your brain reaching for things that aren't there, but specifically your brain is looking for the closeness and the intimacy that you had with that person. So think about on a normalized basis, let's say your routine is you go to work, you come home, and after dinner you both snuggle up on the couch and you.

Netflix or whatever shows on tv, and you're just enjoying sitting side by side and going through your evening routine. Let's say one day you have an argument or a disagreement with your spouse and you know you're both feeling a little petty. So after dinner, you give 'em a dirty look so they know not to sit next to you or you sit on the other end of the couch.

But there's this separation, right? There's this acknowledgement of. , I'm frustrated with you or this situation, I don't wanna be close to you. Or you go sleep [00:19:00] on the couch, or, don't try, rubbing my back. I don't want you anywhere near me. Disagreement and discourse causes physical separation.

When we're upset or we're angry with someone. . Our brain really associates the fact of when we're in harmony, when life's good, for the most part, we're enjoying being with our person. These specific moments at night, going to bed, running errands, whatever it is, we're always very close with them.

And if I'm not physically with this person during this time, that means something is wrong. And so our brains almost subconsciously have this drive or this urgency within us to say something's wrong. Something's wrong. Are they angry at us? Did we get into a fight? Do you know what, if I had done this, could I talk to them?

But there's this worry and anxiety that goes on in your mind because you can't figure out why this physical closeness from you has been separat. [00:20:00] Your mind also has this, almost like a G P S system of where in the world your spouse should be at any given time. So say it's during the day, maybe in your mind, oh, they're in, town, they're at work, or, Hey, it's Saturday morning, they always go to the gym at this time.

You generally have a sense of where in the world your person is, whenever you're living life on a daily basis. But the challenge with losing a spouse is you have this almost tug of war in your mind. So you have this portion of your mind that knows logically, my spouse isn't here anymore. They're not on earth, they're never coming back.

But this other part of your mind that's really wrestling with where are they? I know if you believe in heaven and the afterlife. I know they're in heaven. I know that they. there, but I don't have a place on my map for that because I can't just call 'em, I can't FaceTime [00:21:00] 'em, I can't, they're not going to be back with me here physically on earth.

And so you're, it's like the g p s locator in your brain is going a little bit haywire because it's having a really hard time understanding. A really good example of this too is that think about if maybe you've had a friend or a child or someone who's, or maybe you have dated someone and they ghost you, and if you haven't had these conversations recently, ghosting is essentially where, let's say you're talking a lot with someone.

You're texting even, you're calling, you're FaceTiming. Maybe even see 'em in person. You're building this relationship. Everything seems like it's going well, and then poof , they've blocked you. You, they are not responding to you. They're avoiding you, and there's just zero explanation. Someone who has been building a relationship.

and communicating with another person who gets ghosted. They go through a lot of emotions. They get [00:22:00] angry, they're sad, they're confused. What happened? I thought everything was going well. And it can cause some people to do some nasty things. Maybe people send a really hurtful email. Maybe they try to track this person down.

Maybe they blast him on social media, like who knows? But even. The simple act of being ghosted drives a lot of volatile emotions and thoughts within a person. How much more so does grief and losing a person? Unexpectedly or not. Cause within us, all of a sudden there's this huge separation and we didn't ask for it.

We weren't expecting it. We feel just this huge gap and loss. and it causes a lot of turmoil and anxiety within us because we're trying to figure out are they angry? Why can't [00:23:00] I reach out to them? Why aren't they calling me back? Why aren't they here with me? I don't understand. It causes a lot of those feelings and thoughts to go through our mind.

So that is one of the reasons why grief is so painful.

As your brain is searching for your spouse, your brain has a tendency because it's looking for something that isn't there. You're almost subconsciously still looking for your person out in public, even though you may not realize it. And one of the things that would happen to me and that happens to other people is they'll get this little tiny shock of recognition of thinking.

They see their spouse for example in the first few months, if I saw someone with a similar build to Nathan or a similar hairstyle or maybe choice of clothes, I might even not necessarily initially recognize that they're there. Maybe saw them outta the corner of my eye, but it would be enough where I was like, Man, I'd have to turn and look and be like, whoa, I thought that was Nathan there for a [00:24:00] second.

Even though I'm not actively looking for him out in the crowds, and I know that he's not gonna be there and I'm not gonna see him. You still, especially initially, have these little shocks or moments of what you think is recognition until you turn and look a little more closely at that person. And that's because your mind knows this person, this hairstyle, this body build, these types of clothes, those are the things that we associate with that person.

It's like sometimes when you buy a new vehicle, say you buy a red. Suburban and you're out driving and you're like, man, I am noticing so many red suburbans like I've never noticed that many suburbans before, is because your brain knows it needs to keep an eye out for red suburbans. You've told your brain, this is important.

You need to remember this. You need to keep an eye open for this. When I'm coming out of the grocery store, when you know I'm walking to my car and I'm going to the next location, like your brain. , [00:25:00] that image, that shape is important to you. It's the same thing with your spouse. It's keeping an eye out for where that person may be, what they look like.

And so it can cause these little shocks to your system or these little jolts to say, oh, is that my person over there? Oh, no, it's not. And then it can bring on a sense of sadness or just remembrance of what has happened to our person.

Widows can also report at times that they may hear things that aren't there. And one great example of this essentially was that let's say every day at 6:00 PM your spouse would come home, they'd open the garage door, so you hear that noise in the background. They'd come in through the garage and maybe they would call out to you or say hi or something like that.

So your brain has associated that, a noise that you might hear. First of all, around 6:00 PM at night each night, your brain's somewhat looking for your spouse or your person to make that noise. Then that's the indicator that your person is home, and [00:26:00] that brings up a reminder or a memory of you being with that person.

So it would not be uncommon for around 6:00 PM at night, especially for the first several nights that you hear a noise or you think you hear the garage door open, when in reality it's. Your brain looking for that, thinking about that, expecting that, and the garage door may not have opened at all, but it may feel very much like you absolutely know for sure that you heard it.

It sounded like they were coming home. And that brings on just again, a whole nother wave of emotion and thought number four on why grief is so hard and so challenging is insomnia and. This one is brutal. I'll, I had insomnia for many months. I may get two to three hours of sleep, otherwise, I was fully wired.

And what is so weird about it, I think [00:27:00] most people don't understand is that. . It's not like you're awake, bawling your eyes out the whole time, or it's not like you're awake and only thinking about your person. It's just this very strange, for me, it was this very strange I'm awake, I'm alert. I was putting together end tables at 3:00 AM it's just, I got a lot of stuff done having insomnia where whenever I could focus, but it's very unsettling and it almost causes during the day for you to have this. Fog in your mind, like when you have a newborn and you're having to wake up every two or three hours to take care of them, and you just feel like you never really get a full night's sleep or a deep sleep.

This can be very upsetting and make it very difficult to navigate and be a fully function. Functioning human. If you're truly not getting enough sleep and you're struggling with insomnia. So a couple things to keep in mind with insomnia is that your brain has [00:28:00] certain cues, if you will, for when it's time to go to sleep, when it's time to start winding down.

And sometimes that really gets disrupted whenever we lose our person because they're usually very closely integrated with our nighttime routine. For example, Nathan would say to me, 10 o'clock at night. Okay, let's go to bed or let's do this. And then we had our little routine of what we would do before we hopped in bed and finally went to sleep.

But he's not there. So does that mean I wait till 10 30 or 11? Does it mean that I get tired by eight or nine and I'm trying to go to bed? Then? Some people also dread going to bed because they know that's really when they're gonna be missing their person. Almost the most that it's hard because they think about their person.

So they'll avoid physically going to bed and they'll fall asleep in the recliner on the sofa or somewhere else in the house. And the problem is that as they're doing that, . Inevitably, they'll wake up, two or three hours later in the middle of the [00:29:00] night, have to turn off the tv, turn off the lights, then go to bed, and instead of being able to go to bed and to fall back asleep and be relaxed, now you're going through those emotions of feeling sad and missing that person, and it almost wakes you back up.

Even though you may feel like it's better not to go to bed and to avoid doing that by having this routine of falling asleep somewhere else, and at some point making your way to bed, you're actually hurting your sleeping routine instead of. Making your way there initially. And even though it's very difficult, our brains really rely on cues that tell us when it's time to go to sleep.

And so the goal would be to remove that middle process of waking up in the middle of the night and then going to bed, and then having all of those feelings come over you. So the author has some really great recommendations of what you can do to. [00:30:00] Work towards going directly to bed and coming up with a routine that starts to cue your mind.

It's time to sleep, and then you alleviate that part of the night where you're getting up and shuffling to the bedroom and going through all of that later. Another thing that she mentions is that, Taking a specific type of medicine to go to sleep or receiving a prescription for sleep, while physicians many times have the best intent and you have the best intent for some people, that creates a new cue and a new habit, which causes them to not ever be able to come off the sleep medicine or just to not work towards coming.

Of the sleeping per sleep medicine prescription. So she just cautions us to think about some of the ramifications of taking a sleeping medicine and she has some good advice of ways to think about what is really happening with our body and our sleep patterns with insomnia. But I won't give it all away.

I will let you read that.

. So those are the four main reasons [00:31:00] why it hurts. Grief hurts so much, and it's so hard. I hope that you are able to learn something today. Please know there's so much more in the book. Please go check it out if this was interesting to you at all. It is definitely well worth the read.

I read it in maybe a day and a half not even having to read the whole time. It's very, it's entertaining, it's educational and I think really helpful in understanding. Why and how grief impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. And it gives you some reassurance that what you're facing is most likely normal.

And what do other people experience or go through, and what can you expect as you're trying to reimplement a life of normalcy. I think it also has some really great points around how you shouldn't feel like you're going backwards. in your healing journey or for you to be aware of what coping mechanisms you may have.

Some may be [00:32:00] healthy and some may be unhealthy. She talks about avoidance and about numbing your emotions and your feelings and what impacts that has so much good information here in the book,

and I hope that it was helpful to you or insightful and that you check it out to learn more


Emily Jones: thank you so much for listening to the Brave Widow Podcast. I would love to help you take your next step, whether that's healing your heart, binding hope, or achieving your dreams for the future.

Emily Jones: Do you need a safe space to connect with other like-minded widows? Do you wish you had how-tos for getting through the next steps in your journey, organizing your life or moving through grief? What about live calls where you get answers to your burning questions? The Brave Widow Membership Community is just what you need.

Inside you'll find [00:33:00] courses to help guide you, a community of other widows to connect with, live coaching and q and a calls, and small group coaching where you can work on what matters most to you. Learn how to heal your heart, find hope, reclaim joy, and dream again for the future. It is possible. Head on over to brave to learn more.



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