A friend whose husband recently died mentioned, quite frantically, that she isn’t able to think or keep any thoughts in her head anymore. Although she worried that such a state was abnormal, which it normally would be, it is perfectly normal for a new widow or widower. During that first year of grief and sometimes beyond, almost all of us have to deal with some sort of mental fogginess. This state is more commonly known as “widow’s brain,” and though I used the term in the title of this blog, I generally refrain from the term because men also suffer from this condition.
As bad as the shock and pain and fogginess are that first year, they do seem to offer some sort of protection. Although we know the deceased loved one is gone, we don’t KNOW it, don’t really want to know it. We feel their goneness, of course, in the very depths of our being, but one part of us holds out hope that, as impossible as it may be, the whole thing is a test. When we get through that first year, all will be well. Then, of course, dawns the 366thday, and we are faced with the unpalatable and undeniable truth that their being dead is no test, no mirage created out of a foggy brain, but the reality of our situation. Because of this raw realization, sometimes the second year is worse than the first. It was for me, and it was for many widows and widowers I know.
Although the friend didn’t ask for my advice, I still suggested that she be patient with herself and not make any important decisions without thinking and thinking again. Very few people understand the reality of this brain fog —the grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and fogginess that shroud us after the death of a life mate — but it is a real condition. And we need to protect ourselves from ourselves as best as we can.
As I wrote in Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One:
The whole brain is involved in the grief process, but the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that seems to contribute the most to brain fog. The prefrontal cortex is considered the executive branch of the brain and is associated with rational thinking and making sense of emotions, developing and pursuing goals as well as coordinating the brain’s activities. Because we grievers are on total emotional overload, our prefrontal cortex is unable to process all the information it is being fed from all parts of the brain. The more we try to suppress our emotions and try to think our way out of grief, the more overloaded the brain becomes.
Although short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, missing memories and memory gaps are common, they all add to the general chaos and stress of grief, and make us feel as if we are crazy. Or worse. Denise, a Facebook friend, said she felt like she had a traumatic brain injury after the sudden death of her husband. But we are not crazy. We did suffer a traumatic brain injury of sorts when we lost the person fundamental to our lives, and now we are overwhelmed by the shock and horror and stress of that loss.
Although this fog numbs us to protect our hearts and bodies from the worst effects of losing our life mates, it can be a financially damaging condition.
Three finance professors from major business schools investigated Danish CEOs who lost someone significant in their lives, and they found that family deaths were strongly correlated with declines in firm operating profitability.
So yes, the newly bereaved need to be cognizant of brain fog, widow’s brain, whatever one calls the state, be patient with themselves, and be aware of the possibility of making disastrous decisions.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator
August 12, 2021 at 4:06 pm
In the early months, I found there was a physical dimension to the fog as well. On one occasion, I absent-mindedly stuck my hands in my pockets walking back into the house after checking on something outside. I tripped, and couldn’t get my hands free fast enough to prevent a nasty facial road rash. On other occasions, I left the stove on, cut myself chopping vegetables, and was generally clumsy. I also found my hands shook badly.
I mention this mainly as an added caution to not only avoid major decisions, but also to be alert to possible physical impairments. Doing things like driving or using potentially dangerous tools may need extra care or even to be avoided entirely.
Even now, some 20 months on, the fog rolls in at times. Fortunately, it generally lifts faster than before, and being aware of it keeps me from mischief to myself and others.
August 12, 2021 at 6:36 pm
Those are excellent points. It’s no wonder that people who have lost a spouse or life mate have a 25% higher death rate than the rest of the population. So many things happen, including losing one’s grip physically. Sometimes we simply cannot hold on to things. Driving is really a hazard because not only do we have to deal with the fog, but in the car is where many people find the solitude to cry.
August 12, 2021 at 7:48 pm
It is really strange talking of gripe. When I get up every day I check my fingers to open and close two times every day without any exception. I am doing only after her departure. I have always the tendency to break things with my hand by accident if it is an edge of the table. It is nothing do with my wife.
Another strange thing I don’t understand after her departure I started to drive very fast but I always respect the speed limit. happily less fog around and I drive very less. I never cried in my car except for the first two years. But even now I can cry anytime anywhere with or without reason after her departure.
I have asked myself lots of time the first two years why I didn’t die of grief ?.
August 12, 2021 at 8:34 pm
FWIW, in the early months I found the urge to join her in death almost overwhelming. At times, I still do. When that happens, I remind myself I’ve considered that option and ruled it out. Instead, I try to focus on what might be, rather than what might have been.
August 13, 2021 at 1:18 pm
Like you, I focused on what might be. I thought that if there was such a state as profound grief that I never knew existed, there might be other states that are just as compelling, but happier. So far, I haven’t found that, but it’s possible we found the opposite first before we found grief. Perhaps falling in love was the opposite state.
August 13, 2021 at 1:15 pm
I don’t know why any of us don’t die of grief. It is such a stressful time that it certainly feels as if we could
August 12, 2021 at 8:20 pm
Yup, the car can be the only place to find the solitude to cry. How many of us just suck it up and do what we need to do though? How many of us accept that we aren’t competent at that moment, and don’t drive?
I have to admit I’ve been in the “suck it up” camp. It isn’t pretty, but there it is. Hopefully I’ve learned not to inflict the potential consequences of that on others.
August 12, 2021 at 6:04 pm
I am still very confused by the brutal departure of my soulmate.
To fight with my shock and pain and fogginess
The first year with my every day walk, japanese study’s,(the class and 1-4 hours at the library because it was impossible to work at home) interminable administrative process some extend saved me to fight with mental fogginess.
The second year and third year the pandemic condition made me the survival more difficult.
Like Pat I don’t have any record of writing material.
The first two years I have cried every day for the first time in my life.
All the way I was affected physically, mentally, and psychologically all the time and with my loneliness.
Even now without any projects and try to live day by day until finish my rest of my administrative process delayed by pandemic.
I keep on fighting to my survival to the name of the sake of her love.
Now with unexpected surge of grief I started to accept and try to cope with it.
I feel now crying, support and encouragement of the people around me other compulsory occupations helped me to cicatrice my brain.
I don’t know I feel the fourth year is more difficult for me but for the sake of her love I have the confidence, patient, courage with calm to fight with. My soulmate was always a great fighter for a good cause and result.
I can’t explain something inside me helped me (perhaps her love and benediction) helped me to avoid any disastrous decisions.
August 13, 2021 at 1:13 pm
It really is hard to fight to survive in the face of such trauma, but I’m sure she wants you to survive and be happy if you can. I know that’s a silly thing to say, because truly, how do I know, but anyone worthy of the love you have for her would want the best for you.
August 13, 2021 at 2:52 pm
Thanks Pat it is very kind of you for your kind words. You can say anything freely to me what you feel. Naturally I don’t have any ego problem or vanity badly placed. So what you write and say to me and for the grieving people only helps to feel better and it is precious.