Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Last American Soldier Out of Afghanistan

US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last US service member to leave Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Us Army/Reuters

"After two decades, America’s last soldier left without pomp, without ceremony, 
certainly without the grandeur of victory.
"Bathed in the green light of a night vision scope, Maj Gen Chris Donahue, the 
final American pair of 'boots on the ground,' walked up the rear ramp of an air force C-17 on Monday night.
"In body armour and helmet, the commander of the US army’s 82nd Airborne Division carried his weapon in his right hand, his eyes downcast as his solitary walk ended America’ ill-starred mission in Afghanistan.
"At precisely 11.59pm Kabul time, the final of five American C-17s was wheels up from Afghan soil. Donahue sent a final message to his troops: 'job well done, I’m proud of you all.'
"The image of Donahue’s lonely exit, posted publicly by US Central Command, 
may come to symbolise America’s humiliating, violence-plagued retreat 
from the country..." (The Guardian).

Monday, August 30, 2021

Is the United States right to pull out of Afghanistan? by Stephen Wertheim


Kabul’s fall to the Taliban is a horrific event — one that augurs more horrors to come. The United States betrayed the Afghans it protected, particularly women and girls, by promising them a Taliban-free future that it could never fulfill.

What is unfolding in Afghanistan is so tragic that it ought to represent the worst possible outcome. And yet, one alternative was worse still: continuing the US war effort. That would have meant sending more US service members to kill and be killed for the sole purpose of slowing the Afghan government’s defeat. Such a course would have hurt Americans without ultimately helping Afghans. For US President Joe Biden, it was unacceptable.

Biden made a correct and important decision to withdraw US ground troops, even though the immediate humanitarian impact has been even worse than anticipated. For most of the two-decade-long conflict, the United States fought an unnecessary war for an unachievable objective. It aimed to build a centralised, Western-style state in a country that had no such thing, and it tried to make that state, despite being dependent on external support, somehow become independent. The swift collapse of the Afghan security forces confirms what the administration had concluded: no further amount of time or effort would have produced a substantially better result.

As the Afghan army melted away, some in Washington pleaded that Biden reverse the withdrawal and mount a new offensive. Others argued that the war had been a sustainable, low-cost affair before former president Donald Trump and then Biden opted to quit.

Because of that war, however, nearly 2,500 US service members are no longer alive to register an opinion on the matter. Nor would the immediate satisfaction of hitting the Taliban once more produce a plan to achieve what two decades, US$2.3 trillion, and a peak of 100,000 US troops could not.

The United States still faces two major problems in Afghanistan. The first is how to rescue vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave their country and settle in the United States or elsewhere. The second is how to drive a wedge between Afghanistan’s new government and al-Qaeda so as to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. These are significant challenges, but they do not diminish the decision to withdraw.

For Americans, a third challenge may prove most important of all: coming to terms with defeat instead of indulging the fantasy that somehow, in some way, an unwinnable war could have been won.

Only by accepting defeat can the country mourn the precious lives lost and resources squandered. Only by accepting defeat can US leaders level with the American public, which strongly supports withdrawal, and begin to repair decades of mistrust. This was a grievous defeat for which responsibility must be assigned, not evaded.

A vacuum of meaning will be filled by the least responsible among us, whose ranks are growing amid the country’s political dysfunction. Recall that even in the less polarised era after Vietnam, not everyone accepted defeat. A myth circulated that pusillanimous leaders had forced American soldiers to fight with “one hand tied behind their backs”. 

This myth, promoted by unsuccessful generals like William Westmoreland, led some observers to conclude that the real problem with US war-making lay with the public and politicians for supporting too little of it. To neoconservatives, the “Vietnam syndrome” needed to be kicked. After 11 September 2001, they found their opportunity to demonstrate that American power could remake Afghanistan and Iraq and redeem the world.

By failing to learn, by choosing to forget, the country moves from one unwinnable war to the next. To accept defeat, however, would put America on a different course, at a time when it can ill afford to repeat destructive mistakes.

-ABC Religion and Ethics

Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. You can hear him discuss the crisis in Afghanistan and the future of American hegemony with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on The Minefield.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

“The most effective thing you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and the world, is to GET VACCINATED. And it will work” by Dr. Anita Sircar


“My patient sat at the edge of his bed gasping for air while he tried to tell me his story, pausing to catch his breath after each word. The plastic tubes delivering oxygen through his nose hardly seemed adequate to stop his chest from heaving. He looked exhausted. He had tested positive for the coronavirus 10 days ago.

“He was under 50, mildly hypertensive but otherwise in good health. Eight days earlier he started coughing and having severe fatigue. His doctor started him on antibiotics. It did not work. Fearing his symptoms were worsening, he started taking some hydroxychloroquine he had found on the internet. It did not work. He was now experiencing shortness of breath while doing routine daily activities such as walking from his bedroom to the bathroom or putting on his shoes.

“He was a shell of his former self. He eventually made his way to a facility where he could receive monoclonal antibodies, a lab-produced transfusion that substitutes for the body’s own antibodies. It did not work.

“He finally ended up in the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels, exceedingly high inflammatory markers and patchy areas of infection all over his lungs. Nothing had helped. He was getting worse. He could not breathe. His wife and two young children were at home, all infected with COVID. He and his wife had decided not to get vaccinated. Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was.

“This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.

“Outside his hospital door, I took a deep breath — battening down my anger and frustration — and went in. I had been working the COVID units for 17 months straight, all day, every day. I had cared for hundreds of COVID patients. We all had, without being able to take breaks long enough to help us recover from this unending ordeal. Compassion fatigue was setting in.

“For those of us who hadn’t left after the hardest year of our professional lives, even hope was now in short supply. Shouting through my N95 mask and the noise of the HEPA filter, I introduced myself. I calmly asked him why he decided not to get vaccinated.

“‘Well, I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything. I was just waiting for the FDA to approve the vaccine first. I didn’t want to take anything experimental. I didn’t want to be the government’s guinea pig, and I don’t trust that it’s safe,’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I can pretty much guarantee we would have never met had you gotten vaccinated because you would have never been hospitalized. All of our COVID units are full and every single patient in them is unvaccinated. Numbers don’t lie. The vaccines work.’

“This was a common excuse people gave for not getting vaccinated, fearing the vaccine because the Food and Drug Administration had only granted it emergency-use authorization so far, not permanent approval. Yet the treatments he had turned to, antibiotics, monoclonal antibodies and hydroxychloroquine were considered experimental, with mixed evidence to support their use. The only proven lifesaver we’ve had in this pandemic is a vaccine that many people don’t want. A vaccine we give away to other countries because supply overwhelms demand in the U.S. A vaccine people in other countries stand in line for hours to receive, if they can get it at all.

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I am going to treat you with, remdesivir, which only recently received FDA approval.’ I explained that it had been under an EUA for most of last year and had not been studied or administered as widely as COVID-19 vaccines. That more than 353 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the U.S. along with more than 4.7 billion doses worldwide without any overwhelming, catastrophic side effects. ‘Not nearly as many doses of remdesivir have been given or studied in people and its long-term side effects are still unknown,’ I said. ‘Do you still want me to give it to you?’

“‘Yes’ he responded, ‘Whatever it takes to save my life.’ My patient died nine days later from a fatal stroke. We, the care team, reconciled this loss by telling ourselves: He made a personal choice not to get vaccinated, not to protect himself or his family. We did everything we could with what we had to save him. This year, this tragedy, this unnecessary, entirely preventable loss, was on him.

“The burden of this pandemic now rests on the shoulders of the unvaccinated. On those who are eligible to get vaccinated, but choose not to, a decision they defend by declaring, ‘vaccination is a deeply personal choice.’

“But perhaps never in history has anyone’s personal choice impacted the world as a whole as it does right now. When hundreds and thousands of people continue to die, when the most vulnerable members of society, our children, cannot be vaccinated — the luxury of choice ceases to exist.

“If you believe the pandemic is almost over and you can ride it out, without getting vaccinated, you could not be more wrong. This virus will find you. If you believe I’ll just wait until the FDA approves the vaccine first, you may not live to see the day. If you believe if I get infected I’ll just go to the hospital and get treated, there is no guarantee we can save your life, nor even a promise we’ll have a bed for you.

“If you believe I’m pregnant and I don’t want the vaccine to affect me, my baby or my future fertility, it matters little if you’re not alive to see your newborn. If you believe I won’t get my children vaccinated because I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, it matters little if they don’t live long enough for you to find out.

“If you believe I’ll just let everyone else get vaccinated around me so I don’t have to, there are 93 million eligible, unvaccinated people in the ‘herd’ who think the same way you do and are getting in the way of ending this pandemic. If you believe vaccinated people are getting infected anyway so what’s the point?, the vaccine was built to prevent hospitalizations and deaths from severe illness.

“Instead of fatal pneumonia, those with breakthrough infections have a short, bad cold, so the vaccine has already proved itself. The vaccinated are not dying from COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated countless times during this pandemic, adapting to survive. Stacked up against a human race that has resisted change every step of the way — including wearing masks, social distancing, quarantining and now refusing lifesaving vaccines — it is easy to see who will win this war if human behavior fails to change quickly.

“The most effective thing you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and the world, is to GET VACCINATED. And it will work.”


Anita Sircar is an infectious disease physician and clinical instructor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Op-Ed: “As a doctor in a COVID unit, I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated. Get the shot” by Dr. Anita Sircar, Los Angeles Times

Monday, August 23, 2021

Afghanistan One Week After the Taliban Took Control of Kabul by Heather Cox Richardson


A week after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, as the U.S. was withdrawing the forces that have been in the country since 2001, the initial chaos created by the Taliban’s rapid sweep across the country has simmered down into what is at least a temporary pattern.

We knew there was a good chance that the Taliban would regain control of the country when we left, although that was not a foregone conclusion. The former president, Donald Trump, recognized that the American people were tired of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which was approaching its 20th year, and in February 2020, his administration negotiated with the Taliban to enable the U.S. to withdraw. In exchange for the release of 5000 Taliban fighters and the promise that the U.S. would withdraw within the next 14 months, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. soldiers.

Trump’s dislike of the war in Afghanistan reflected the unpopularity of the long engagement, which by 2020 was ill defined. The war had begun in 2001, after terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11 of that year. Taliban leaders in control of Afghanistan sheltered al-Qaeda, and after the attacks, the U.S. president, George W. Bush, demanded that Afghanistan hand over the terrorist leader believed to be behind the terrorist attack on the U.S: Osama bin Laden. In October, after Taliban leaders refused, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign.

That campaign was successful enough that in December 2001 the Taliban offered to surrender. But the U.S. rejected that surrender, determined by then to eradicate the extremist group and fill the vacuum of its collapse with a new, pro-American government. Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the U.S. project in Afghanistan turned from an anti-terrorism mission into an effort to rebuild the Afghan government into a modern democracy.

By 2002 the Bush administration was articulating a new doctrine in foreign policy, arguing that the U.S. had a right to strike preemptively against countries that harbor terrorists. In 2003, under this doctrine, the U.S. launched a war on Iraq, which diverted money, troops, and attention from Afghanistan. The Taliban regrouped and began to regain the territory it had lost after the U.S. first began its bombing campaign in 2001.

By 2005, Bush administration officials privately worried the war in Afghanistan could not be won on its current terms, especially with the U.S. focused on Iraq. Then, when he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama turned his attention back to Afghanistan. He threw more troops into that country, bringing their numbers close to 100,000. In 2011, the U.S. military located bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and launched a raid on the compound where he was hiding, killing him. By 2014, Obama had drawn troops in Afghanistan down to about 11,000, and in December of that year, he announced that the mission of the war—weakening the Taliban and capturing bin Laden—had been accomplished, and thus the war was over. The troops would come home.

But, of course, they didn’t, leaving Trump to develop his own policy. But his administration’s approach to the chaos in that country was different than his predecessor’s. By negotiating with the Taliban and excluding the Afghan government the U.S. had been supporting, the Trump team essentially accepted that the Taliban were the most important party in Afghanistan. The agreement itself reflected the oddity of the negotiations. Each clause referring to the Taliban began: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will….”

It was immediately clear that the Taliban was not living up to its side of the bargain. Although it did stop attacking U.S. troops, it began to escalate violence in Afghanistan itself, assassinated political opponents, and maintained ties to al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, the Trump administration put pressure on the leaders of the Afghan government to release the 5000 Taliban prisoners, and they eventually did. Before Biden took office, Trump dropped the U.S. troop engagement in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to about 2500.

When he took office, Biden had to decide whether to follow Trump’s path or to push back on the Taliban on the grounds they were not honoring the agreement Trump’s people had hammered out. Biden himself wanted to get out of the war. At the same time, he recognized that fighting the Taliban again would mean throwing more troops back into Afghanistan, and that the U.S. would again begin to take casualties. He opted to get the troops out, but extended the deadline to September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the initial attack. (Former president Trump complained that the troops should come out faster.)

What Biden did not foresee was the speed with which the Taliban would retake control of the country. It swept over the regional capitals and then Kabul in about nine days in mid-August with barely a shot fired, and the head of the Afghan government fled the country, leaving it in chaos.

That speed left the U.S. flatfooted. Afghans who had been part of the government or who had helped the U.S. and its allies rushed to the airport to try to escape. In the pandemonium of that first day, up to seven people were killed; two people appear to have clung to a U.S. military plane as it took off, falling to their deaths.

And yet, the Taliban, so far, has promised amnesty for its former opponents and limited rights for women. It has its own problems, as the Afghan government has been supported for the previous 20 years by foreign money, including a large percentage from the U.S. Not only has that money dried up as foreign countries refuse to back the Taliban, but also Biden has put sanctions on Afghanistan and also on some Pakistanis suspected of funding the Taliban. At the same time it appears that no other major sponsor, like Russia or China, has stepped in to fill the vacuum left by U.S. money, leaving the Taliban fishing for whatever goodwill it can find.

Yesterday, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo flagged tweets showing that members of the Afghan government, including the brother of the president who fled, are in what appear from the photos posted on Twitter to be relaxed talks about forming a new government. Other factions in Afghanistan would like to stop this from happening, and today Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned that ISIS-K, another extremist group, is threatening to attack the airport to destabilize the Taliban.

Meanwhile, there are 10,000 people crowded into that airport, and U.S. evacuations continue. The Kabul airport is secure—for now—and the U.S. military has created a larger perimeter around it for protection. The U.S. government has asked Americans in Afghanistan to shelter in place until they can be moved out safely; the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan has been escorting groups of them to the airport. Evacuations have been slower than hoped because of backlogs at the next stage of the journey, but the government has enlisted the help of 18 commercial airlines to move those passengers forward, leaving room for new evacuees.

Sunday, about 7800 evacuees left the Kabul airport. About 28,000 have been evacuated since August 14.

Interestingly, much of the U.S. media is describing this scenario as a disaster for President Biden. Yet, on CNN this morning, Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, noted that more than 20,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan without a single loss of an American life, while in the same period of time, 5000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and 500 have died from gunshots.

-Heather Cox Richardson










Friday, August 20, 2021

No More Masks and COVID Vaccines/No One Is Going to Tread on My Freedom!


And while you’re at it, chooch, how about

No more stop lights, stop signs and speed limits

No more seat belts 

No more children’s car seats 

No more bicycle helmets

No more safety bottle caps 

No more minimum drinking age

No more ban on DDT, PCBs and cyclamate 

No more food and drug regulations

No more “No Smoking Signs” 

No more regulations of pesticide distribution, sale and use

No more Toxic Substances Control Act

No more Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act

No more tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria vaccines

No more flu vaccines

No more hepatitis A & B vaccines

No more measles, mumps and chicken pox vaccines

No more polio vaccines

No more pneumococcal, rubella, rotavirus and Hib vaccines…


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Sixty-One Years Ago: “[I]t’s fair to say that they arrived in Germany as boys and left as men” (Smithsonian Magazine)



On August 17, 1960, the Beatles kicked off one of their earliest professional gigs—a months-long residency at the Indra Club in Hamburg, Germany. Over the next two years, the budding British rock stars, who’d struggled to book venues in their hometown of Liverpool, continued to perform regularly in the German city.

“We had to learn millions of songs because we’d be on for hours,” guitarist George Harrison later recalled, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times’ Dean R. Owen. “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”

Now, reports Richard Brooks for the Observer, a trove of largely unseen letters, photographs and work permits from this pivotal period is set to go up for auction. The mementos—including a 1963 missive in which Paul McCartney discusses the release of the band’s first LP, Please Please Me, as well as sketches and poems by John Lennon—went under the hammer at the London-based auction house Bonhams on May 5.

Many of the items featured in the sale detail the band members’ bond with Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer who captured images of the Beatles at the beginning of their career. Kirchherr, who died last May at age 81, was engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bass player, until his untimely death at age 21. Sutcliffe, who’d left the Beatles the previous year to pursue a career as a painter, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 10, 1962.

Among the auction’s highlights is a letter from Harrison asking Kirchher to visit him and Ringo Starr, the drummer who replaced original Beatle Pete Best in September 1962, in their new apartment. Per Rhian Daly of music magazine NME, Harrison asked the photographer not to put his name on the return envelope, as doing so could reveal his address to avid fans.

Another note from Lennon to Kirchherr describes the band’s first single, “Love Me Do,” as “quite good but not good enough.”

Stefanie Hempel, a close friend of Kirchherr, tells the Observer that “[a]ll the Beatles were in love with her—partly, a sort of mother or elder sister love, and partly sexual.”

Hempel adds, “Astrid was so beautiful. But she also took care of them, looked after them in a spiritual and intellectual kind of way, as well as giving them a new awareness of themselves.”

Born in Hamburg in 1938, Kirchherr studied at a local art school before honing her talents under the tutelage of photographer Reinhart Wolf, as Allan Kozinn wrote for the New York Times in 2020She met the Beatles at the Kaiserkeller, a club frequented mainly by sailors and sex workers, in October 1960.

At the time, the relatively unknown band made 30 Deutsche Marks (around $50 when adjusted for inflation) a night and subsisted largely on meatballs, alcohol and drugs, per Deutsche Welle’s Michael Marek. As they continued to perform, however, the Beatles developed a solid fanbase and signature style, which included their distinctive mop-top haircuts—a look crafted with Kirchherr’s help, as the photographer told the BBC in 1995.

Sutcliffe and Kirchherr embarked on an intense romantic relationship shortly after meeting. The couple got engaged in November 1960 and were living together at the time of his death, per the Times.

One of the letters included in the upcoming sale directly addresses Sutcliffe’s death. Written in October 1962, six months after his passing, the heartfelt missive finds Lennon expressing how important Kirchherr is to the Beatles.

“I’m really sorry you are so sad and uncertain about yourself,” Lennon says, as quoted by the Observer. “You must know that Cyn, I and the other Beatles will always feel the same about you. You will always be Stuart’s Astrid to us.”

In addition to charting the band’s relationship with Kirchherr, the artifacts for auction tracked the Fab Four’s evolution into pop culture icons.

“The two years the band spent in the city continually playing live on stage were crucial to their development,” says Katherine Schofield, Bonhams’ head of entertainment memorabilia, in an emailed staement. “[I]t’s fair to say that they arrived in Germany as boys and left as men.”

(Isis Davis-Marks, Smithsonian Magazine)


Monday, August 16, 2021

How the Brain Responds to Grief Can Change Who We Are by April Reese (Aeon)


When the hospice nurse called on the morning of 2 April to tell me that my father had died at 7:38am, just two days after he was released from the hospital and seven hours after I arrived in town to see him, the world suddenly felt strange, half-formed. I recognised the shapes of things, but struggled to comprehend what I was seeing. I didn’t realise how much of a pillar of my existence he was, until that pillar crumbled. 

Since the day I was born, he was a constant presence, even at 2,000 miles away – he lived in Maryland, I lived in New Mexico – and now he no longer existed. As much as my rational mind knew this to be true, to the rest of me it just didn’t seem possible.

On the outside, I remained calm, quietly cycling through the unwanted tasks incumbent upon the eldest child of the bereaved: telling other family members, making arrangements, notifying government agencies, companies, organisations, the university where he was a librarian for 33 years. But on the inside, I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. 

At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’

This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’

She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’

The idea of the five stages of grief, common in the Western world, doesn’t help. It’s become part of the zeitgeist that we go through these stages in turn, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression and finally to acceptance. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed these five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying (1969) as a way to describe the experience of people facing a terminal illness. 

Later, with the death and dying expert David Kessler, she extended the idea to explain the bereaved’s response to loss in On Grief and Grieving (2005). But in recent years, psychologists and neurobiologists have come to realise that grief is far more complex and individualistic. 

The ravages of grief are many and varied. A bereaved person feels sad, of course, but they might also feel angry, irritable, tired, unmotivated, deflated, even bothered more than usual by noise. Like Shulman, a neurologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, they might question their identity, their place in the world.

The five stages of grief theory, it turns out, is not a particularly helpful way to think about bereavement. In fact, it can be harmful: if the way we feel doesn’t fit the mould, we might think that there’s something wrong with us – or with the people around us.

‘Importantly, we may turn away from our instinct to do things that comfort us in the belief that there are right and wrong ways to behave,’ Shulman writes in her book Before and After Loss (2018). ‘But our experience of loss is personal and intimate. It doesn’t lend itself well to generalisation; it’s as unique as we are.’

The study of the bereaved has revealed just how diverse people’s experiences of grief are – but also some interesting patterns. In a remarkable study of depression in the bereaved, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2015, researchers monitored 2,512 people who had lost a spouse or child – once before and three times after the loss, over a span of 18 years. 

They found that, while 7 per cent had chronic depression that persisted throughout the study period, most of the participants – about 68 per cent – experienced only mild depression, or none at all. Meanwhile, 11 per cent reported dealing with depression before the death, but the depression eventually lessened over time, and 13 per cent experienced chronic grief – an onset of depression after the death.

Her own experience inspired Shulman, who studies Parkinson’s disease, to investigate the neurology of grief as a way to understand what was happening to her. In her book, which interweaves her grief story with the science of bereavement, she notes that grief is a universal human experience that our brains have evolved to manage. 

Over millennia of collective loss, the brain has developed a sophisticated strategy to help us endure bereavement and, eventually, to heal, says the psychologist Natalia Skritskaya. ‘Grief is a natural reaction,’ she says. ‘However unsettling, and however strange those reactions are, there are good reasons for them.’

Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.

While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. 

Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.

‘To sustain function and survival, the brain acts as a filter sensing the threshold of emotions and memories that we can and cannot handle,’ Shulman writes in her book. There is little we can do to change this response, she adds, though we wouldn’t necessarily want to; it’s essential for adjusting to the loss. ‘We’re at the mercy of this whole process, basically,’ Shulman says.

So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.

‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’

Just as the body knows what to do to heal a wound, the brain knows what to do to heal itself after a loss. But that healing takes time, Skritskaya says: ‘It requires kindness and being gentle with yourself.’

How long grief lasts varies from one person to another. For some people, the pain of loss can pass within a few weeks or months, while others might still feel deep sorrow a year later.

If the grief is too intense for too long, though, it can become problematic, recent research suggests. If there’s a preoccupation with the loss that lasts more than a year, treatment might be needed to help the bereaved come back to themselves, many psychologists now believe. The condition, called prolonged grief disorder or complicated grief, is included in the latest volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose clients.

That’s not to say that if someone is still grieving deeply on the 366th day after a loss, their bereavement has suddenly become disordered. ‘There’s some arbitrariness to that [one-year] time point,’ says Skritskaya, who is also a researcher at the Centre for Complicated Grief at Columbia University in New York. ‘It’s a balance between making sure we don’t pathologise normal reactions, but then also that we do give attention to people who seem to be struggling and need more help – those who are having a more intense experience.’

People who lost loved ones to violence, or had a very close relationship to the deceased, tend to be more vulnerable to complicated grief, a 2019 study by researchers in the Netherlands and the US found. While it can be easy to assume that prolonged grief is simply a form of depression, and can be treated the same way, it’s not. 

The same study notes that complicated grief is distinct from depression, and from post-traumatic stress or anxiety, though there is some overlap in symptoms, such as a diminished sense of self and social isolation. Other research has found that cognitive decline is more pronounced in people with complicated grief.

Cases of complicated grief are rare, though; only about 10 per cent of bereaved people will develop the disorder, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark. Most bereaved people vacillate between actively grieving and moving through the obligations of daily life with some semblance of normality.

This oscillation between sorrow and kind-of-OK describes my own experience. While working on this essay, for example, at times I was able to enter states of flow – extended periods of unfettered, focused writing – much as I could before my father’s death. 

But at other times, often in the same work session, I was overcome by despair and an acute awareness of my father’s absence from the world, an incomprehensible erasure. When thoughts of him surfaced, either wending their way into my consciousness of their own accord or through the trigger of an email from a friend or family member, an unbidden memory, even a letter from the hospice centre, there was nothing I could do but stop and let the sobs come. It’s like my primal brain knows exactly what I need and will make sure I get it.

Indeed, researchers now recognise that the vagaries of grief, however unpleasant, are a way of helping the brain, mind and body cope with the loss – and, eventually, adapt to the new reality of life without a loved one.

Gradually, in ‘the process of dealing with loss, coming to terms with that world where you don’t want to be’, grief becomes more integrated into the bereaved’s everyday life, rather than a dominant force in it, says Judith Murray, a psychologist with the University of Queensland in Australia.

‘That’s the incredible power of healing from grief,’ she says. ‘We’ve got this idea that you get over your grief, but it becomes a part of who we are.’

With the cerebral cortex back at the helm and a return to higher-level thinking, the mind is able to spend more time reflecting on the loss and the relationship, and grappling with the meaning of it all can lead to positive growth. Loss can inspire people to examine life more deeply than they did before, and foster a greater awareness of their own fragility and a stronger sense of purpose, Shulman writes in her book. 

She cites a 2004 study that found that loss can lead to positive growth in a number of different ways: a new sense of priorities and a greater appreciation of life; better relationships; feeling stronger; a tendency to see new possibilities; and spiritual development. In her own life, Shulman found that journalling helped her to process her grief. In reflecting on her loss, she found meaning in it.

Not everyone experiences such growth after a deep loss, however. For some, the consequences can diminish their own health – and even hasten their own demise. Writing in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2019, O’Connor notes that multiple studies have found increased rates of mortality among bereaved people. 

My dad might be yet another sad example of grief contributing to a premature death. Four months before he passed, his wife died, and his health deteriorated. When he finally went to the hospital, the doctors eventually diagnosed the source of the pain that had left him bedridden: he had developed severe stomach ulcers. I can’t know for sure, but my last conversations with him in the months before his death have left me with a deep suspicion that his own grief and loneliness contributed to his rapid demise.

Even for those who navigate the rough rapids of grief without falling overboard, grief never recedes completely. A 1995 study found that two to 15 years after bereavement, people who’d lost a child or a partner reported lower overall satisfaction with their lives – but greater coping skills.

Understanding the neurological underpinnings of my grief, and that growth often follows it, is a comfort – though I know any growth I gain from my father’s death is a long way off. For now, I’m tending to the emotions that arise as they come, (mostly) without judgment, and seeking comfort from supportive friends and immersion in the ponderosa pine forests near my home.

An email I received the other day from my father’s oldest friend, who knew him for 70 of his 79 years, gives me hope for a future in which this irrevocable loss no longer feels so potent, when my neural pathways re-order themselves once again and my ‘grief brain’ yields to a new reality, and a new way of remembering.

‘When we lose a friend, we have grief accompanied by fond memories,’ he wrote. ‘Eventually fond memories push the grief into the background. I’m waiting sadly, but patiently.’

To read more about the emotions, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.

April Reese is an independent science and environment journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Outside, bioGraphic and The Guardian, among many other outlets.