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The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss

Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD

August 19-23, 2024

Monday - Friday: 9:00a.m. - 12:30p.m. EDT | 30-Minute Break Daily

15-Hour Course |  Delivery Format: In-Person or Live-Online

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Course Description

Why does grief hurt so much? Why does death, the permanent absence of a person with whom you are bonded, result in such devastating feelings and lead to behavior and beliefs that are inexplicable, even to the grieving person? Taught by a neuroscience professor and clinical psychologist, this course will discuss the what of grief—what it feels like, what problems it causes, and common neurobiological and physiological reactions. But more importantly, it will discuss the why. Some of the answers to our questions about grief can be found in the brain, the seat of our thoughts and feelings, motivations, and behaviors. By looking at grief from the perspective of the brain, we will discuss the contemporary science of the how of grief in order to better understand the why.


While this course will utilize the lens of neurobiology for understanding and working with grief and grieving, the course material is accessible without a need for a neuroscience background. fMRI neuroimaging has shown that the most significant impact of the death of a loved one is in those who have the most severe psychological grief reactions. Understanding bonding and separation in animal neurobiology can help explain what happens in humans during acute grief. Knowledge about how the brain learns new information is helpful to understanding the trajectory of adaptation during bereavement. Studies of cognitive functioning are particularly relevant for older adults following the death of a loved one. The course culminates in discussion of empirically-based psychotherapeutic interventions for prolonged grief that are proven effective, including Prolonged Grief Disorder Treatment, guided mindfulness meditation, and exposure therapy. Participants will explore these findings and clinical experiences in light of the neuroscientific research on grief.

Course Agenda (click to expand)

Course Objectives (click to expand)

About the Instructor

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Speaker Disclosures:

Financial: Mary-Frances O'Connor has no relevant financial relationships with ineligible organizations. She receives a speaking honorarium from MAK Continuing Education, LLC, Cape Cod Institute.

Non-financial: Mary-Frances O'Connor has no relevant non-financial relationships with ineligible organizations.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona Department of Psychology, where she directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab. She earned a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona in 2004 and following a faculty appointment at UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, she returned to the University of Arizona in 2012. She served for three years as Director of Clinical Training in the Psychology Department. Her research focuses on the wide-ranging emotional responses to bereavement. In particular, she investigates the neurobiological and psychophysiological aspects that vary between individual grief responses via functional neuroimaging, immune, and endocrine analysis. Dr. O’Connor also researches difficulties adapting following the death of a loved one, termed prolonged grief (newly included in the revised DSM-5). She believes that a clinical science approach toward the experience and physiology of grief can improve psychological treatment. Dr. O’Connor’s recent book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising

Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (2022; HarperOne) has garnered praise from peers and literary critics alike, and has led to speaking engagements around the world. In addition to her outstanding record of scholarship, Dr. O’Connor is a highly proficient and beloved teacher and mentor, honored with the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBURP) “Outstanding Mentor Award” in 2014. In 2020, she organized an international multidisciplinary research group called the Neurobiology of Grief International Network (NOGIN). Under her leadership, the group has held three international conferences supported by the National Institute on Aging. Dr. O’Connor is a highly sought-after speaker, giving numerous talks and workshops to community organizations around the world, including in-service trainings to healthcare professionals and volunteers at hospices. She has authored research papers published in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, from American Journal of Psychiatry to NeuroImage to Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Dr. O’Connor’s work has been discussed in the New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Scientific American.

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Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD

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What Alumni are Saying...

"Mary-Frances did an exceptional job of integrating her and other's research into clinical understanding and application. She is a dynamic and enthusiastic presenter, and though I had read her book prior to attending, I learned so much more from seeing her in person. I will absolutely take any opportunity to continue to learn from her in the future." - 2023 Participant

"Mary-Frances was an excellent trainer. Everybody should take her class." - 2023 Participant

"I so enjoyed Mary-Frances. She sent such a caring, gentle, knowledgeable, humble presenter. She is so real about grief and makes it safe to talk about it." - 2023 Participant

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