Making Peace with Grief

Making Peace with Grief: Achieving “Temporal Integration

If you are grieving, trying to make sense about life…and death…is probably frequently on your mind.  It was on my mind when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, throughout his treatment, and still continues long after his death.

Recently, I’ve come across some science on brain health that helped me to understand my grieving process better.

Instinctually, the threat of death (your own or others) can bring up the need to control.  This is natural: our brain is wired to seek permanence and continuity.  It’s why when we blink, our mind makes it seem like one steady flow, even though it’s NOT.

Yet, besides this instinct, another part of our our brain allows us to contemplate the meaning of death (and life).  This part of the brain, primarily located in the prefrontal cortex, deals with more complex reasoning including morality and empathy.

Dr. Daniel Siegel names nine domains of integration as part of his definition of  optimal mental health.  (See chart at the bottom of this page.)  One of these domains, known as “temporal integration,” is the integration of the two very different brain functions that I just mentioned.  Essentially, temporal integration is a coming to peace with the fact that we all want and need certainty yet we also must acknowledge that everything dies. 

Temporal integration is the brain making sense of time, certainty and uncertainty, and mortality and immortality.

To mature and reach our full potential, we must learn to live with the inherent uncertainty of being alive.   Joan Halifax in her book, “Being with Dying,” calls this practicing “not knowing.” Since the domains are progressive in neurobiology, the skills that come from achieving integration in each domain are required in order to help achieve temporaral integration. One small example is the 2nd domain bilateral hemispheric integration. Our two hemispheres when well integrated  mean the corpus callosum, (the bridge that connects the two hemispheres,) contains more integrative fibers. This leads to greater affect regulation , (the ability to calm down strong emotional intensity). While trauma shrinks the corpus callosum, loving-kindness meditation grows it* (Research from Naropa Institute, 2004).

When I’ve co-facilitated grief groups in the past, Mona Taylor, LCSW, has a sentence that to me, represents the thought of a person who is grappling to attain integration:  “I am learning to be a vulnerable person in an unpredictable world.” We must possess the ability to calm our emotions, the ability to reflect deeply using executive functions like empathy and insight, and many more skills, before we can truly hold grief in our hearts and minds in a way that becomes both grounded and meaningful. Like the mind in neurobiology, which is an embodied and relational process that regulates energy and information flow, grief is a process and I encourage everything to be gentle with themselves as they work with it. I think it’s like shame, too, in that it is a social emotion and requires others as part of the integration process.

I’ll end with an appropriate quote by Pema Chodron:

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

By cultivating all nine domains of integration including temporal integration, we are better able to “let there be room for all of this to happen.”

APRIL 28, 2020

UPDATE TO THE ABOVE ORIGINAL POST

Frances Weller writes about grief being a “faculty,” which relates to this skill of achieving the 8th Domain. See this 2 minute video from my neuroscience blog where Weller describes his definition of an “initiation,” which is an encounter with death. My description from below the YouTube video is pasted below :

I wanted to post this description of a “rough initiation” from Frances Weller to put out into the world for people to think more deeply about the implications for the Coronavirus. The original interview is here https://tns.commonweal.org/podcasts/f…. He has published a new book, “In the Absence of the Ordinary,” that is a collection of essays that I highly recommend, see it here: https://www.francisweller.net/ For those going through grief, Crockett has some blog posts with helpful affirmations: https://greenlightheidi.com/2011/07/a… And a meditation known as “strong back, soft front,” here: https://greenlightheidi.com/2011/07/m…

May we find the inner resources to be present with our sorrow, including all 5 gates outlined by Weller. May we be honest with ourselves and others about our experiences of suffering and loss. It has been and continues to be a journey for me, not only when losing my husband to brain cancer in 2009 but as I face intense physical pain due to a rare, congenital back condition. Please feel free to make a comment below.

Questions? Contact me at

HeidiCrockett at gmail.com

*** “control” photo credit to faramarz

***”Share your happiness with others” fortune cookie photo credit to Tim Ebbs

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