The way grief memory imprints on the human brain is important because it helps keep the moment vivid and remembered for a long period. While during acute grieving this poses issues for healing, in the long term, it keeps the precious memories of the loved one intact far stronger. No-one wishes to lose the memory of a loved one. In fact, many go to lengthy processes to keep the memory alive. Keeping a certain object, clothing, or journaling are all ways individuals try to keep the memory strong. Fortunately the brain keeps it strong as well.
The Hippocampus and the Amygdala play a key role in keeping the emotion imprinted. The Amygdala processes emotion to the Hippocampus sometimes in intense ways that even bypass longer cognitive thought in a more direct route. The Hippocampus imprints these types of emotional images and for long term. The Cortex also imprints these images. Unfortunately, sometimes trauma and intense grief can cause PTSD where these images are fragmented and never properly processed. These are not the types of long term grief memories we want.
The video below discusses how grief and memory interact with other. Please also review AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Certification and see if it meets your academic and professional goals.
As sentient beings, the human person is composed of past and present events that construe identity. Without a process to recall who one was, then one loses the sense of self. While metaphysically, the wholeness of the individual still exists, the physiological ability to recount past events due to dementia or brain damage can play a detriment to the past self. The process of retaining the past and what has been learned is referred to as memory.
Memory is critical to existence of any organism. The memories can be explicit or implicit. Both are extremely important. Explicit memories refer to one’s conscious memories that are retrieved with effort. They include semantic and episodic events. Semantic refers to factual knowledge, while episodic refers to events. The implicit memory is automatic and can recall more primitive and conditioned responses without effort to recall. These include space and time, motor and cognitive skills and natural reactions learned from classical conditioning. Explicit memories are short term stored in the Hippocampus and long term stored in the cortex, while implicit memories are stored in the more primitive areas of the brain in the Cerebellum and Basal ganglia. These types of memories permit one to live day to day knowing one’s conscious past self as well one’s automatic responses and skills that are imbedded within one’s subconscious.
When an event occurs, our senses interpret the data and the brain encodes, stores and when needed later, retrieves. The neurons in the brain form various interconnections and physiologically capture the abstract thought. In this amazing transfer of abstract to material, memories are kept. Some information is stored temporary in short term memory but more important life events are stored in long term memory. Obviously, the more important the event, the more long lasting the memory. In fact, in intense, traumatic, or critically important moments, the emotional part of the brain and the Amygdala reacts to an event. The body produces more glucose for better brain activity and the event and subsequent memory has a far strong imprint upon the person.
In the case of severe trauma, a smaller percentage of the population is unable to store the memory properly and it becomes fragmented and unable to store to the point where it is not properly integrated first with the Hippocampus and then later with the cortex hence resulting in PTSD. The fragmented memory hence becomes a haunting event that is triggered via sound, scent and place and can manifest in flash backs or nightmares and night terrors.
Memory and Loss
Obviously, some of the most intense memories are loss. When someone a loved one passes away, the vivid nature of the memory is more strong due to the emotional connection and the reaction of the Amygdala to the situation. This leaves a very vivid memory. One can relate to the most detailed accounts of an emotional event, to the event itself, but also side details of the what one felt at the moment, the surrounding environment and people present, while other past memories not emotionally charged or almost completely forgotten and if remembered only in a foggy way. The emotion involved in losing someone charges the brain so much that the memory remains very strong. In fact, the neural networking between neurons is much stronger in an emotional memory.
This is good and “bad”. It is good because it is a critical moment in one’s life but it is “bad” because it causes more pain when retrieving it. Obviously, I put “bad” in quotations only because of the distress associated with the retrieval but very few would ever trade an emotional memory of such critical importance no matter how sad. Hence when recovering from a loss, the memory remains vivid and strong and can be retrieved consciously but also through automatic functioning via scent, sound or place. In many ways, the brain does not wish to forget the event and this is why the more intense the attachment, the more intense the loss reaction. The brain clearly understands love and attachment and it holds very dear the memory of that attachment and has evolutionary designs to ensure the connection beyond the event.
While some memories may hurt, many during the grieving process fear the loss of these memories. While memories of loss are painful, they connect one to the lost loved one. The fear of losing those memories is like losing the person again. Sometimes, individuals will fear even losing the memory of loved one’s face, smile or voice. Fortunately, the strong neural networking for important events allows one to hold tight to the treasured memories of a loved one. Even after reconsolidation, when memory is retrieved and reviewed again with the possibility of altering before being stored again, is less likely in a intense traumatic or eventful memory.
While memory is still not perfect due to injury, or forgetfulness over time, many individuals who lose a loved one are encouraged to memorialize the loss. This is not only critical in acknowleding the loss and also celebrating the relationship in a healthy coping way, but it also permits one to submit additional records beyond one’s memory. A written log in a journal, pictures, or a tribute of some type all strengthen memory of the deceased and ensure a written record of one’s loss.
In addition, sleep and dreams at a subconscious level maintain memory. During sleep many things are encoded into the longer term memory. In dreams, information is processed but also neural networks are strengthened. Unfortunately, traumatic events are also relived albeit in symbolic form. The loss of a loved one is remembered in dreams as the brain recollects the emotional event. While most dreams of a deceased loved one are merely the working of the brain while one sleeps, many contend that in dreams the loved one comes to them in a spiritual way due to the subconscious state of the mind. Many religious and spiritual views contend that dreaming is not only remembering but also a way the deceased can communicate. While empirically this is not possible to test, those of faith maintain these experiences. Science in this case cannot negate or confirm, hence one is left to faith and one’s own subjective experience and belief.
Memories are critical to self. The most important memories and life events are fortunately emotionally charged and hard to forget. This plays a major role in how one processes grief and learns to adjust to the loss itself.
Please also review AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Certification and see if it matches your academic and professional goals. The program is online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification in Grief Counseling.
“Exploring Psychology”. Myers and DeWall. (2019). Worth Publishers, New York.
“Healing Your Brain After Loss: How Grief Rewires the Brain”. (2021) The American Brain Foundation. Access here
“What Does Grief Do to Your Brain?”. Pedersen, T. (2022). Psychology Today. Access here
“GOOD GRIEF: HOW MOURNING CAN AFFECT YOUR MEMORY”. Lundstrom, J. SimpleSmartScience. Access here
“Emotions Can Affect Your Memory — Here’s Why and How to Handle It”. Swaim, E. (2022). Healthline. Access here