Allow yourself the freedom to grieve

“… In the end, maybe absence is just an invitation for something greater: a chance to leave the dead alone, to put new flowers in a vase. All this lack just leaves an opportunity to atone, to adore.” – @hammuraber

Life is a series of moments between birth and death. Across all cultures, the beauty of how life begins and ends is acknowledged differently. Death could be celebrated as a rebirth, or a divine returning. The constant is that life – at least as we experience it – begins and ends.

Life is also an amalgamation of cycles: cellular division from one cell to two to four and eight; infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence. The great golden glow of sunlight, the 28-day moon dance, and the celebration of a year every 365.25 days all reiterates the cyclical nature of what it means to be alive.

To be in symbiosis is to be in association with another. In this breath, symbiosis is a constant reconstitution of matter: organisms borrowing molecules from each other; fungi doing the ever-important work of decomposing organic materials; new life sprouting from the substrate of what once was…  What an honour it is to be in association with the world around us – to be born and know that our fate is to return to the ground that facilitates our liveliness. I welcome the reality that this may be the ultimate freedom: not that death is a part of life, but rather life is a part of death.

Please do not think that I reduce the heartache and weight of loss to be light, or bearable, or even tolerable. Loss can feel cruel. You spend your time building a sandcastle made of memories, laying the most meaningful ones as bricks in towers where they are surely safe. Without warning or consideration, grief – with the impact of a tumultuous tide – disintegrates every instant of joy you have ever known. I imagine grief is where life and loss are in symbiosis.

Grief is embedded within the death of a loved one, but also in the change of seasons or feeling the end of a long-term friendship. I have lost stored data and grieved nostalgia’s absence in flipping through photographs. You may need to grieve the job you dreamed of but weren’t offered. Even as we adopt new behaviours, we may grieve for ourselves no longer being the last to leave a party. Mourning is akin to a mirror of celebration.

The neuroscience of grieving supports that grievance may be considered a type of learning. As you acknowledge how much adaptation is required in accepting one’s new reality, it makes sense that this is learning how to find peace in mourning. The attachment pattern needs to be reworked as the brain reconstitutes a new symbiosis with the subject and context of bereavement.  This adaption engages networks of the brain involved in self-soothing, emotional processing, remembering, and imagining the future.

Psychology derives that there are seven stages of grief. Though these criteria have value, I maintain that to stage grief implies that the experiences are not personalized, cyclic and profoundly overwhelming. Grieving is non-linear. It unravels without time, without a clear beginning or end. It washes over the griever in waves.

It is common practice to relish milestones like birthdays or victories. We may even celebrate freedom of movement, expression, choice… On paper, the South African constitution outlines these freedoms as human rights. Why then, do we often shy away from grieving transparently; rather, convinced that we must be our own lifejacket as we struggle to stay afloat?

I offer myself this: “Allow yourself the freedom to grieve.”

Create freedom for yourself around the why and how and when. Let the pragmatic thinker be soothed as you exercise your birth right to feel. Engage on the ritual of remembrance that comes with grieving, for active participation in honouring what you have lost yields the immortalization of love and memory. It births a capacity to recreate.

In grief’s ebb and flow, we are not free from temporary suffering. We are not free of emptiness. Rather, the freedom comes from feeling our grief completely – without time, without a clear beginning or end.

I am if you are, and if you aren’t I still am.

I am…

Take a moment. Breathe in. 

Say, “I am…” and the first few things that come to mind. Notice how these thoughts feel. Any words that follow “I am…” have the power to mould and manoeuvre your sense of self.

I am human. I am curious. I am kind. It is perhaps one of the greatest instincts of the human condition to attach ourselves to a sense of identity. This may be rooted in connection, community or companionship.  Perhaps identity stems from creation, control, or ceremony. To construct a comfortable and assured interaction with the environment, we tell ourselves (and those around us) who we are. I am not my research, though I am working in the field of sleep science – diagnosing obstructive sleep apnoea in persons living with HIV. This involves tracking the brain patterns of a sleeping patient, as well as their breathing. I am constantly reminded to be humble in my knowledge acquisition.

I am a learner. I am a teacher. I am a neuroscientist. Effectively, this means I study the squishy, convoluted pink organ housed within the skull. This lump of biologically active stuff, which somewhat governs our lived experience, fascinates me so deeply that I am compelled to tell you why it is part of who I am.

As you read this sentence, your brain is making associations between what I write; the sounds in your environment; any aromas wafting past your nostrils; and even the temperature of your body. When you think back to this moment, your brain will recount – within milliseconds – all the sensations activated within you to remind you of this experience.

The average human brain can create about 60 000 thoughts every day!

We can practice calming or stimulating our minds by the type and timing of awareness we employ. I might be so bold as to say this awareness is a series of thoughts. So, what is a thought? A thought is an electrochemical trace that occupies multi-dimensional space in your brain. A thought is the internal experience of how we process external stimuli. This internal experience relates to one’s senses and (new term incoming) somatosensation, or the sensory relationships of our bodies with the space around it – a tickle, an itch, a chill. We even have this epic internal ‘sixth sense’ called interoception – sensing what we feel within our bodies! In some ways, I agree that what we think we can become.

Still, I am more than just my brain’s interpretations of my body’s sensations.

Humans have humanity. We adapt to circumstance and unite in hardship. I am an activist. I am an advocate. I am an ally. I situate myself at the intersection of neuroscience, public health, and social justice. I have more than just a love for science – I have a love for sharing science. This brings me to a chilling (but in no way “chilled”) fact:

In 2020, the Annual Mental State of the World Report showed that 36 % of South Africans are living in mental health distress. Let that number sink in. 36 % is about four out of ten people. I dream of a day where we see this number crumble like the last rusk in the packet. My research aims will likely centre around this dream for as far into our future as I can imagine. This percentage is not the fault of our brains, but a psychosocial consequence of centuries of suffering and oppression.

Restructuring the paradigm of cognitive wellness requires not only inclusion of minority groups, but in fact building new systems with excluded groups at the centre of our focus. While I have an ongoing love-affair with the brain, I feel even more inspired by Black joy, trans joy and accessible places for people with disabilities. As I pursue my neuroscientific dreams, I want to cultivate safer mental health spaces and research outcomes for LGBTQPIA+ people, Indigenous peoples and disabled persons.

There is no quick fix for mental health reform, but I am committed to proactively prioritizing both systemic and systematic wellness. I invite you to ask yourself, “Am I?”.