Recently a friend, well acquainted with my suicide loss, sent me an article about the brain, Loss, Grief, and Recovery written by Arlene R. Taylor PhD, who studies science and emotions concerning the brain. As I scanned the article, I was taken aback by the scientific data that is available on the brain. The information was new to me, and worth filing away for future reference. It is a long article, so I will share a portion of it that will fit the blog. If you are interested in reading the entire article for yourself, you will find the source at the end of this piece.
“Loss, Grief, and Recovery”
“Three relatively short words that represent huge concepts, the discussion of which is sometimes discouraged or repressed. Even worse, fraught with anger, fear, and conflict. Studies have suggested that the brain can deal effectively with something only when it can label and describe what needs to be handled. Topics such as loss, grief, and recovery topics need to be delved into –and handled. Otherwise the emotional energy around them can accumulate as a slush fund that sucks up energy, making the brain unavailable for successful living.
“Although this is not a definitive treatise on loss, grief, and recovery, it is a framework from which you can think about, talk about, select what is needed, and eventually choose a path of recovery that works for your brain. The good news is that it is possible to move through the process successfully—even gracefully…”
Definitions: [two from the article]
“Grief Recovery: Grief recovery is the process of learning to feel better and to achieve a condition of balance following any type of loss. For some, grief recovery means returning to a previously experienced state of soundness and balance; for others, it means attaining a state of soundness and balance that they may not have experienced before. It involves grieving the loss and healing the emotional pain. Just as human beings can recover from the pain of surgery and feel better as the incision heals, or recover from a broken bone and feel better as the bone knits together, so you can recover from a loss and learn to feel better as you move through the grieving process and heal from the pain. Sometimes the loss is identified and recognized and the grief-recovery process worked through. Sometimes not. The survivor may even feel angry, resentful, and even bitter at being ‘abandoned.’
“Survivor Guilt: Also known as survivor syndrome or survivor syndrome, this is a cognitive or mental state that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done something unfair or even wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide…”
Types of Death: [one from the article]
“Death by Suicide: For survivors, death of a loved one by suicide can trigger a holocaust of emotion. The perception of loss due to a sense of hopelessness can be exacerbated based on factors including religion. It can be especially traumatic (for example) when survivors want to bury the loved one in a church cemetery, but are denied this opportunity due to theology that basically says the person killed him/herself and is going to hell so cannot be buried in consecrated ground–or some other variation on a theme. Unfortunately some believe that suicide is a violation of the 6th commandment.
“Studies are confirming that people rarely attempt or commit suicide unless their brains are in an altered state. Studies by Cornelius van Heeringen MD PhD of the Netherlands, have pointed out that suicide may be a unique entity, reflecting the culmination of several complex processes that include the following: depression, impulsivity, disinhibition, anxiety, and executive function dysregulation.” [executive function dysregulation defined below]
“Executive function dysregulation: “Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.
“Possible manifestations of emotional dysregulation include angry outbursts or behavior outbursts such as destroying or throwing objects, aggression towards self or others, and threats to kill oneself. These variations usually occur in seconds to minutes or hours. Emotional dysregulation can lead to behavioral problems and can interfere with a person’s social interactions and relationships at home, in school, or at place of employment.” (Wikipedia)
“Candace B. Pert PhD was very clear that when in the grip of a strong emotion, the brain is in an altered state, especially when the protective emotions of anger, fear, and sadness are involved.
“Many factors can contribute to an altered brain state, especially an imbalance in neurotransmitter and hormone levels. Following are five examples.
1. “High levels of Corticotrophin Releasing Factor (CRF), both a hormone and neurotransmitter, are released when a brain is stressed/depressed. High levels of CRF have been found in the cerebrospinal fluid of those who have major depression and those who committed suicide, likely related to the underlying major depression.
2. “An increase in cortisol levels. Cortisol has many important functions including working with the thyroid gland and assisting with the fight-flight stress response. Elevated 24-hour urinary cortisol production was found in patients who recently attempted suicide, compared with patients who did not have a history of suicidal behavior.
3. “Alterations in the serotonin system. Neurons in the reptilian (1st brain layer) produce serotonin that is carried to the prefrontal cortex (3rd brain layer) by long projections—regulating mood, sleep, etc. Abnormal levels (too high or two low) are associated with suicidal tendency, OCD, alcoholism, and anxiety. In suicide, neurons appear to send less than normal amounts of serotonin to the prefrontal cortex.
4. “Decreasing levels of cholesterol. Recently, decreasing levels of cholesterol have been linked with increased suicide risk, whether the decrease occurs spontaneously or is attributable to drugs or diet. The brain needs cholesterol (e.g., has an antioxidant effect; provides the raw material for progesterone, estrogen, cortisol, testosterone, and vitamin D; and impacts memory).
5. “Excessive activity of the norepinephrine system. Both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, norepinephrine mobilizes the body for action as in the fight-flight reaction to stress. Elevated levels of norepinephrine inhibit activity in the prefrontal cortex brain that helps regulate conscience, willpower, decision-making, and behavior.
“Certainly, it behooves humans to avoid rushing to judgement about suicide. Rather, choose to share information about ‘altered brain states and suicide’ with survivors. It may help their grief recovery.”
What science discloses about the brain is a new concept for me, and, naturally, my thoughts went to my firstborn as I pondered this information. If elevated levels of norepinephrine inhibit activity, then it stands to reason (in my mind) that before my son’s death, he could have acquired brain changes that gave him, in a sense, a “suicidal brain.” Undoubtedly, he was not in a healthy place to make crucial life decisions when he resolved to end his pain; “a permanent decision to a temporary problem,” which some are inclined to say about suicide.
I’d like to call attention to the connection the author made between religious practice and suicide. She did not elaborate; she simply mentioned that it is unfortunate that some say the act of suicide is breaking the 6th commandment. I agree that it is unfortunate if people insist that this is a true statement.
As I understand scripture, only the God of heaven knows the heart of the child who chooses to end his pain. He alone knew what was going on in the child’s brain before he or she died. He does not follow the religious beliefs, practices, and traditions of our day. He alone loves your child even more than you do. No one grieves more with you than God.
“Loss, Grief, and Recovery” – A Mini-Monograph by Arlene R. Taylor PhD, Realizations Inc.
Conclusion entitled: “Science and Emotions”