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Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD

The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science Of How We Learn From Love And Loss

August 14th - August 18th, 2023

This course is also available Live-Online!


This course is no longer available.





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15 Hour In-Person & Live-Online Course

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

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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.


To understand grief, understand bonding and attachment

  • Differentiating attachment processes from attachment styles

  • Neurobiology of attachment in prairie voles

  • Neurobiology of attachment in humans, including reward learning

  • Developmental aspects of attachment theory


Neurobiology of grief and grieving

  • Difference between grief and grieving

  • Cognitive neuroscience of grief

  • Gone But Also Everlasting theory

  • Structural brain constraints on learning during grieving

  • The utility of basic science as a lens on grief


Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD)

  • Distinguishing grief and trauma

  • Debunking the myth of the 5 stages of grief

  • Empirical data on the grieving trajectories

  • Stigma vs. benefit of psychological diagnosis

  • Diagnostic criteria and cultural considerations


Grieving as a form of learning

  • Complications for learning are also complications for grieving

  • Bereavement as a health disparity

  • Older age cognitive decline and grief: chicken or egg?

  • Role of social support


Toolkit of coping strategies and psychotherapeutic intervention

  • Emotion regulation flexibility, the right strategy for the right moment

  • Avoidance

  • Rumination

  • Psychotherapeutic intervention (Prolonged Grief Disorder Treatment, CBT, mindfulness)

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Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD

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