Believing in Magical Thoughts

A few years ago, an older colleague of mine passed away. I spent some time with his widow in the months afterward. As a prominent sleep researcher, her husband had traveled quite often to attend academic conferences. Over dinner one night, she shook her head as she told me it just did not feel like he was gone. She was believing in magical thoughts. It felt as though her husband was just away on another trip and would walk through their door again at any minute.

We hear this kind of statement quite often from those who are grieving. People who say this are not delusional; they simultaneously are able to explain that they know the truth. They are not too emotionally frightened to accept the reality of the loss, nor are they in denial.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Another famous example of this belief comes from Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion explains that she was unable to give away her deceased husband’s shoes, because “he might need them again.” Again, she was believing in magical thoughts.

Why would we believe that our loved ones will return? We can find answers to this question in the neural systems of our brain, systems that produce different aspects of knowledge and deliver them to our consciousness.

If a person we love is missing, then our brain assumes they are far away and will be found later. The idea that the person is simply no longer in this dimensional world is not logical. The question to consider is, Why do we believe we will find them?

Some Deaths Seem Peaceful

My experience of my father’s death was extremely peaceful and filled with awe. I was comforted by loved ones and caring professionals around me. I was able to focus on what was happening at the time. As I look back on it, I usually feel quite peaceful, even if very sad.

Because I got to experience what could only be called a good death, I count myself extraordinarily lucky. It was aided by the fact that he was in a hospice program, designed by the people who know the most about creating conditions most likely to lead to a good death.

Other Deaths are Terrifying

Many deaths are not at all like this. People experience fear, terror, pain, helplessness, or extreme anger at the moment of their loved one’s passing, especially if it occurs in violent or terrifying circumstances, in accidents or emergency rooms.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were unable to be with their loved ones when they were admitted to the hospital and were not at their bedside when they died. Without the opportunity for saying good-bye, ambiguity may surround the “realness” of the death.

Research shows that ambiguous loss, such as when family members are disappeared by a political regime or missing and presumed dead from an airplane crash or in wartime conflict, complicates the grieving process.

One reason may be that part of our brain is wired to believe that our loved one is never really gone. Rewiring our understanding may take longer or cause greater distress.

Adapted from THE GRIEVING BRAIN by Mary-Frances O’Connor and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

Buy Link:

Read more on Open to Hope:


Mary-Frances O'Connor

Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, where she directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab, which investigates the effects of grief on the brain and the body. O’Connor earned a doctorate from the University of Arizona in 2004 and completed a fellowship at UCLA. Following a faculty appointment at UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, she returned to the University of Arizona in 2012. Her work has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, and Psychological Science, and featured in Newsweek, the New York Times, and The Washington Post. Having grown up in Montana, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. For more information go to

More Articles Written by Mary-Frances