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Am I to Blame?- the 2nd in a series on how grief interacts with our brain –

The blame game, we all play it. Come on, admit it, you see a victim on TV, their car is washed away in a flash flood and the first thing you think is, “Why did they drive into a creek?” Or we hear about a shooting fatality and think, “What were they doing out so late, anyway?” If we find fault then we somehow feel safer. It’s an illusion.

I could easily blame the person who killed my son but I am still responsible for how I live the rest of my life.

Grief effects our thinking, our memory, our behavior.  Could there be a physical basis for our outward behavior and inward emotions? We know alcoholism changes the chemistry of the brain. Every time we drink alcohol, it crosses the blood brain barrier to effect our brain by changing and even killing brain cells

Certain addictive behaviors, such as gambling, even eating for some people effect the brain by tapping into what’s known as our “pleasure center.” In experimental animals, when this pleasure center is altered, animals will engage in repetitive behaviors to the point of causing themselves significant damage. They become “addicted.”

It’s easy to blame an addict for their problem, after all they took the drug or drank the drink. They ate the donut or box of donuts, they took themselves to the casino and bet their last paycheck. Blaming them for their behavior does not help. They are already blaming themselves, they are already guilty. What I am talking about is responsibility.

Here’s the key—so important—addicts are responsible for their behavior just like you are responsible for getting up in the morning. But what if you are so grief stricken that getting up is a monumental task? I still have a problem with blaming you for staying in bed, but you are still responsible for being late for work.

 It bares repeating: I wouldn’t have this trouble if my son’s life was not taken from me, but now I have a new set of troubles for which I am responsible.

Here’s some shocking news: A researcher named O’Conner began searching for the neurological basis of grieving and found that the intense yearning of complicated grievers brings them as much pleasure and reward as it does pain. Isn’t that crazy? Not really.

Think about some of the behaviors we engage in when we are down. We go through picture albums, we listen to sad music, we think about the past. It feels good. I have sad tracks of music on my Pandora station, lots of them, one is even called “Hurt.” I just love it, the tracks allow me to feel bad and it feels so good. Crazy?

You may know what I’m talking about. You may go to the cemetery, you may take flowers, you may sit in your garden and think about the one you lost. It feels good to do this, but at the same time you cry, you think about what might have been and you think about how his, her or your life is now. This is not wrong, this is understandable.

Do I blame you for doing this? Of course not! But you are the one responsible, right? Could there be a point when these behaviors interfere with our lives? Is it possible that we can neglect living?  These are personal questions for all of us to ask ourselves.

The nucleus accumbens is part of the “Pleasure Center” the amygdala is part of the limbic system

O’Conner goes on to say, “In both simple and complicated grief, the center of the brain responsible for emotions and memories (limbic system) is activated.” The limbic system is a series of brain structures, and glands throughout your body that regulate our emotions. It’s what activates us to action in a crisis and what contributes to us continuing to feel the way we do. These researchers looked at the working brains of people in grief through MRI’s and found that scans of complicated grievers show activation in the brain center responsible for pleasure, rewards, and get this—addiction. Wow!

Other researchers discovered the same systems and chemicals in our brains that produce pleasure can also become destructive and lead to addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to this process. Noradrenaline (adrenalin) is linked to activation and panic, and serotonin is linked to mood.

Another researcher writes, “Indeed, when brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons. These link areas associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs. This shows the pervasive impact loss or even disappointment can have. And the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more developed these neural pathways become.”

Grief is a normal process. It is a part of life and death. But complicated or prolonged grief effects our brain, and our brain effects the way we grieve. Do we blame the parent who lost a child when they cry at work? Of course not. But this same researcher suggests we can schedule our grief.

That’s nuts! Or is it? I communicated with someone who did just that and was able to go back to work. She didn’t blame herself—she took responsibility for her actions.

Deborah Khoshaba, About Complicated Bereavement Disorder, Sep 28, 2013
Marian Osterweis, Fredric Solomon, Morris Green Toward a Biology of Grieving – Bereavement, 1984
Thomas Crook, This Is How Your Brain Reacts to Losing A Loved One, Nov 3, 2011

Andy Davidson was a Navy psychologist who thought he knew about grief after dealing with returning war fighters. When his son was killed, he realized how little he knew. He now searches for answers that are true to the literature and to his experience both personal and professional. Please respond with your experience on this website or 

Am I to Blame?- the 2nd in a series on how grief interacts with our brain –

Andy Davidson

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APA Reference
Davidson, A. (2019). Am I to Blame?- the 2nd in a series on how grief interacts with our brain –. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Jul 2019
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