Widow’s Brain

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

Questions About Grief

A friend’s husband died a few months ago, and during this time, she’s been asking me questions about grief. Since some of them are things I haven’t talked about, with her permission, I am posting her questions (in bold letters) and my answers.

I just got back from a visit with a relative. The emptiness is horrible!

Yes, the emptiness is horrible. I wasn’t sure if I should warn you about how awful it would be when you got back to the empty house, but I figured you’d find out soon enough and I didn’t want to ruin your visit. It’s really hard living with grief.

Did you ever have a weekend where you couldn’t stop crying for more than an hour?

Yes, many, many. I cried for twenty-four hours straight once.

How long did it take before you didn’t cry every day?

A long time. Years. Sometimes it was for just a few minutes. Other times it felt as if he had just died, and I cried as I did at the beginning.

I thought it would start to back off by now.

No. Maybe after six months, the time between crying bouts will get a lot longer, but the tears come back. It’s kind of a shock when the tears return after a period of relative peace because we’d begun to believe it was all over. When the tears come and stay too long, about all you can do is distract yourself by going to the store or a museum, but then you often have the problem of DWC (Driving While Crying). Or crying at the grocery store. It’s not fun.

Did you ever see a grief counselor?

Not a grief counselor, but I did go to a support group for about a year. A support group is good because it helps being around people who are going through the same thing you are and who understand. In my case, it also helped because I was new in town and didn’t know anyone.

What did you have the most trouble with the first year?

It was all horrific. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t stand the pain and loneliness.

What sort of things helped during really bad episodes?

Walking. Working helped – housework, cleaning, clearing out stuff. Screaming helped. I did a lot of screaming. Writing letters to Jeff helped a lot. It made me feel as if we were still connected somehow.

How do you make yourself not cry for things like doctor’s appointments?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. Sometimes my tears stopped when I was with other people. Sometimes not. If they didn’t, I just told people to ignore them. Also, being at the doctor’s office rather than at home might be a big enough change to stop the tears.

Is nausea one of the signs of grief?

Yes. I was often too sick to my stomach to eat. But pay attention. The nausea could have other causes.

Did you have different food choices the first year?

Oh, my yes! It took me over a year to be able to eat meals Jeff and I fixed. In some cases, it took longer. In fact, there are some foods I still haven’t eaten.

Did you have any trouble with hair, skin, and nails the first year?

Absolutely. My hair turned to straw, my skin dried out, and my nails got soft. It’s because of the stress. Studies have shown that losing a spouse is the most stressful experience a persona has, by a large margin.

Are you ever scared?

Sometimes. At the beginning, I was often terrified. And for a long, long time I was scared of growing old alone. I still am, but having a house helps. Also, I’m to the point where, if I do get afraid of living alone or anything else, I can turn my mind to other things. But yeah, fear does niggle at me.

Living after the death of a husband is really, really, really hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s not just the pain and horror of grief that’s hard, but having to find a whole new way of living because your old way of life died when he did.

I don’t feel strong enough.

You might not be strong now, but you will find the strength to get through this. I promise.

I’m glad you are so sure.

I am. I know. It’s the way of with all of us who are left behind. We have no other choice but to live one minute at a time. As time passes, we look back and see all the minutes and pain we have survived, which gives us strength to continue. You’re still at the start, so you can’t see yet all you have done since he died.


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

Dealing With Grief During the Holidays

This is an excerpt from my book: Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One:


The first year of grief after the loss of a spouse or a life mate is hard because our grief is so new and so raw that it’s all we can do to take one painful breath at a time. All the firsts we experience during this period can make things even harder.

The first holidays are painful. The first wedding anniversary, the first birthdays, the first major holidays. Each of these days brings a greater sense of grief because we are intensely aware that our life mate is not here to experience these once-happy holidays with us. Whatever traditions we developed together become obsolete when only one of us remains to carry on. The pain and the yearning to be together once more during these times can be devastating.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years are the big holidays with the biggest challenges. These special days are family celebrations, and often we are left alone with our memories and our feelings, even if we are surrounded by family.

After Jeff died, I went to take care of my ninety-three-year-old father. That first Thanksgiving, my brothers and sisters-in-law came to have dinner with us. I felt awkward because my widowed father sat at one end of the table, and I sat at the other end in my mother’s place, even performed her hostess duties. Despite that weirdness, it was a nice meal, but as the guests were leaving, two by two, I fell into a deep crevice of grief that took a couple of weeks to crawl out of.

Christmas is even more challenging because if we do opt to join the family in festivities, assuming we have such an option and want to make use of it, our families don’t know what to say to us. They are afraid of saying “Merry Christmas,” because they know there can be no merriment for us. Their fumbling to find something to say makes us so much more conscious of our situation than the rote greeting, “Merry Christmas,” would have done. After all, no one truly is wishing us, or anyone, merriment. It’s simply the thing we say.

We each have to find our own way to deal with the holidays. Talking to someone about our loved one, perhaps sharing a special memory can help, and if there is no one to talk to, writing a letter to our deceased mate can make the upsurge of grief around the holidays easier to handle. There is great power in writing to our dead because it gives us a sense of connection and continuity. We are verbal creatures, so putting our feelings into words can be therapeutic and can decrease the stress of the holidays.

Sometimes we grievers find comfort in doing things the way we always did because it makes us feel closer to our departed loved one. Sometimes we need to create new traditions for us alone, which is how I dealt with the days.

Jeff loved Christmas lights, and since he still lived in my heart, or so people said, I took him for a walk that first Christmas Eve and showed him the abundance of lavishly decorated houses in the neighborhood. As fanciful a notion as that was, it helped.

Over time, as we build new memories on top of the old ones, the emotional resonance of the holidays and anniversaries diminishes, as does the dread leading up to these days. The upsurges of grief we experience soften to a feeling of nostalgia and even gratitude that once we were loved, once had someone to love, once had someone with whom to share our life.


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.

Two Years and One Day of Grief

Today I embark on my third year of grief since the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I am now in uncharted territory.

The first year of grief passes in a blur of angst, emotional shock, myriad physical reactions, painful surprises about the nature of loss and grief, and the almost impossible effort of going through the chores of living.

The second year of grief is one of learning to deal with the truth that he is dead, and that there is nothing you can do about it. No matter how well you deal with your grief, no matter how you rise to the challenge of life without him, he is not coming back. You knew this, of course, but now it has seeped deeper into your consciousness, and you feel it with every breath you take. Because of this, the second year (or at least parts of it) can be worse than the first. What makes the second year even harder to face is that you’ve used your grief card. Everyone thinks you should be over your grief, and they have little patience for your continued tears. They urge you to get on with your life, but they don’t understand that this is how you are getting on with your life.

The third year of grief is . . . I don’t yet know since this is only the first day of this new year. Today feels no different from yesterday or the day before, and I don’t imagine tomorrow will feel any different.

During the past two years, I’ve been looking for the bedrock of my new life — the thing, the idea, the place, whatever that bedrock might be — that gives me a foundation on which to build a future. Mostly, I’ve been waiting for my grief to dissipate so I can find my way, but the truth is, I will always grieve for him, though perhaps not as actively as I have been, because he will always be dead.

Acceptance is supposed to be one of the stages of grief, but I’ve never actually reached that stage (nor did I experience most of the supposed stages of grief). I cannot accept that he is dead for the simple reason that it’s not my place to accept it. Acceptance to me suggests that it is okay, and I will never believe that it is okay for him to be dead (even though I do understand the necessity of it). Perhaps acceptance only means that I accept the reality of my continued sorrow and loneliness.

People tell me that you never do get over such a grievous loss, but that after three to five years you rediscover the importance of living. It might be easier to meet the future head-on if I’m not expecting my sadness to dissipate. Maybe this is my bedrock — the missing, the yearning, the sadness, the loneliness. If so, I just need to accept that they are part of my life, and build from there.