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

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.

Meeting the Challenges of the Second Year of Grief

A couple of weeks ago I talked about The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief:

1. Trying to understand where he went.
2. Living without him
3. Dealing with continued grief bursts.
4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing.
5. Handling the yearning.

There are other challenges, of course, some unique to each individual, but all the challenges are dealt with the same way: By continuing to feel the pain when it erupts rather than turning away from it to satisfy the concerns of those who don’t understand; by taking care of ourselves even when we don’t see the point; by trying new things.

In other words, we meet the challenges of the second year by living. It sounds simple, but nothing about grief for a life mate/soul mate is simple. By living, we begin to move away from our pain, but we also move away from the person we loved more than any other. For some bereft, this feels like a betrayal of their love — how can you continue to live when life on this earth is denied him? For others, it seems like a betrayal of themselves — how can you become the person you need to be without betraying the person you once were?

It seems an impossible situation, yet life does continue whether we will it or not.

In my case, I’ve been meeting the challenges of the second year the same way I met the horrendous challenges of the first year. I take long walks almost every day, I exercise (stretching, weight-lifting) two or three times a week. I dance to a couple of songs most days, hoping to train myself to feel lighter in spirit and maybe even learn to have fun — whatever that is. I also try to eat a salad every day and stay away from sugar. At least, that’s the goal. I’m very disciplined for several days, following everything on this list, and then I decide the heck with the list — treating myself is more important than doing the right thing.

Either way, I am moving away from the life we once shared. And I am living.

The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief

The challenges we face during the first year after the death of a life mate/soul mate (or any other significant person), are too great to enumerate. It’s all we can do to cope with the seemingly endless chores of laying our beloved to rest while dealing with the emotional shock, the physical pain, the psychological affront. Sometimes the first anniversary of his death is one of peace when we realize that we managed to survive the worst year of our life, but then we wake up to the second year and find a whole other set of challenges to meet.

These seem to be the five major challenges to face during the second year of grief:

1. Trying to understand where he went. We can understand that he is out of our lives (even though we don’t like it), but we cannot understand his total goneness from this earth. No matter what we do, how we feel, or what we believe, it doesn’t change the fact that he is dead. And there is nothing we can do about it.

2. Living without him — we can do it, we’ve proved that during the past months, but we still have a problem figuring out why we would want to.

3. Dealing with continued grief bursts. Though we do okay most of the time, and though we fulfill our daily responsibilities quite capably, upsurges of grief still hit us, sometimes right on schedule (such as my sadder Saturdays), and sometimes for no reason at all. Sometimes they last for days (such as the upsurge of grief most of us felt this New Year’s Eve) and sometimes they last for mere minutes. But always, just when we think we can handle it, grief returns and we feel as if he just died.

4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing. The second years seems to be a limbo, a time of waiting though we don’t seem to be waiting for anything. We’re just . . . waiting.

5. Handling the yearning. So many people who try to explain grief get it wrong. It’s not about going through five or seven or ten stages of grief. It’s about yearning for one more smile, one more word, one more hug from the person who was everything to us. The first year of yearning was hard, but somehow many of us had the strange idea that this was some sort of test and that after we passed the test, he’d pop back into our lives and we’d go on as before. Well, now we know this is no test. It’s the real thing. And there is nothing protecting us from that great clawing yearning.

Making a list is easy. Meeting the challenges of the second year of grief is hard, but maybe we succeed simply by living, by dealing with each day as it comes.


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.

Grieving the End of This Year

I’ve been doing well, continuing on with my life after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and then suddenly, here I am, awash in tears again. I had no idea why this would be so, until I found out that so many others in my grief age group — those whose mates died in 2010 — are also going through an upsurge of grief. And now I know what triggered the tears, though I don’t know why.

The body/mind/soul remembers dates, anniversaries, emotional occasions long after the conscious mind has forgotten, which is why I know when Saturday (the day of his death) is coming around again — I can feel the sadness creeping up on me the day before. He died late Friday night or early Saturday morning depending on how you look at it, and my body seems to look at it both ways. But this upsurge in sadness has nothing to do with Friday or Saturday, or even with Christmas.

For those in my grief age group, this was our second Christmas without our loved ones. It was harder this year for some of us than our first Christmas without, perhaps because the truth is settling into our souls, and we know there will never be another Christmas with them no matter how much we yearn for it. (For this very reason, the second year of grief is sometimes harder than the first. The physical and psychical pain isn’t as great, but the emotional shock that protected us has worn off and the truth that they are never coming back has taken root along with a great clawing yearning to see them one more time.)

We’ve survived most of our firsts — the first birthday without, the first summer, the first Halloween, the first Thanksgiving, the first anniversary of their death — and now one more first is almost upon us. We are coming to the end of the first full calendar year without them.

Why would this ending be an occasion for an upsurge of grief? I don’t know. It’s particularly strange for me since I don’t see anything special about a new year — it’s such an arbitrary date — but apparently my internal datekeeper has made a note of it. And now I am grieving the end of this year, this first full calendar year without him.

Gathering Patience for the Lonely Years Ahead

A major loss in one’s life, such as the death of a long-time mate, often changes a person. For almost twenty months now, I’ve been saying I’m no different than I was, but lately I can feel a small change. It started with his long illness, developed during his final agonizing weeks, and came to fruition in the months since his death. This change? Patience. An ability to wait.

I’ve never been a particularly patient person. I always open mail as soon as I receive it. (It used to mystify me how my late mate could let his mail sit for days without any inclination to see what the sender wanted.) I immediately begin to read books when I get them, open packages of snacks when I return from the grocery story, check my email first thing in the morning.

Well, I still do those things, but I am more patient with life’s vagaries and people’s foibles. There is no person I prefer to be with above all others, no place I want to be. If I have to stand in line at the grocery store, I simply wait without tapping my foot or wishing the line would move faster. If someone tells a long boring story, I simply listen without trying to edge away.

I’m not sure this is patience so much as resignation. When my mate died, he detached one of my connections to the world, and this connection has never been replaced. There’s something missing in me, some synapses that doesn’t spark, as if I am at one remove from the world. It’s possible this feeling of reserve comes from a new awareness of death or an awareness that life is not as it seems. Life isn’t all about shopping and what’s on television. It’s not about cars and clothes and things. I always knew that, of course, and because of it was already one step away from the everyday world.

My mate and I were not materialistic people. We lived in a world of ideas, of books, of films. Learning, research, discovery, growth were important to us. He used to say we were bad for each other — since we had someone to share these unthings, we had no reason to make a concession to the materialistic world. Though he’s dead, I’m still unable to connect to such a world. In fact, with my disconnect from him, I am now two removes from the so-called real world.

I’ve built new connections, made new friends, experienced new places and activities. I’ve become more aware of basic connections, such as the way my feet connect to the ground, or the way air flows through us, around us, connecting us one to the other. I’ve grown more empathetic and sympathetic. But still, there is no great attachment to any specific thing or any specific person. There is only me, and wherever I am, there I am, so there is no reason to be anywhere else.

This could change in the next few months, of course. I am almost two-thirds through my second year of grief, and the second half of the second year seems to be a limbo, a time for settling into this new phase of life, a time of gathering patience for the lonely years ahead. (The first half of the second year is often a time of re-grief, of having to deal with the horrible realization that even though you managed to get through your first year without him, even though you passed this test, your loved one is still dead. It can be a time of catastrophic pain.)

I’ve managed to come this far, and I will continue to manage. I’m from a family of long-lived people, so it’s a good thing I am learning patience (or resignation). I will need it.

Following Grief Wherever It Leads

A couple of weeks ago at my grief group, I mentioned that the day I cleaned out my life mate’s effects — his clothes, personal items, and mementoes — was the worst day of my life. I then said the only good thing about it was that since it was the worst day of my life, by definition, every day afterward would be better. The moderator of the group gave me a surprised look and said, “That’s a very positive thing coming from you.” Huh? I didn’t know we were supposed to be positive. I thought the whole purpose of dealing with grief, of talking about it, of learning from it was to feel it, process it, and let it go so that we’d eventually be able to rebuild our shattered lives. Being foolishly positive seems to be a rather negative way to deal with a soul-shattering loss.

After the first painful weeks, most bereft are outwardly optimistic when it comes to sharing their grief because they’ve been taught that dwelling on anything unpleasant is unhealthy. They talk about looking forward to new opportunities, new goals, new hopes, but inwardly they are still reeling from their horrendous loss. (And if they aren’t, chances are they are denying what their loss means to them.) I chose instead to feel my grief, to dissect it, to put it into words for the bereft who couldn’t express what they were feeling. I also wanted to illuminate the experience for those who haven’t a clue what grief really feels like (especially novelists, who so often get it wrong), and to challenge the current myths about grief. If I wanted to, I could have been as optimistic as everyone else, but that was not my self-imposed mission. I don’t need to shore myself up with positive thinking — I’m strong enough to take grief straight. This does not mean I am closing myself off to new possibilities. Eventually I will have to rebuild my life, but I am in a position right now where I can follow grief wherever it leads.

And where it is leading is into the second year of living without my mate.

The first year of grief is all about dealing with the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual shock of the soul quake you experience when a long-time mate dies. That shock protects most of us from feeling the full effect of the truth — that we’ll never see our mates on earth again. After the first year, when we begin to rebuild our lives, to feel that the worst is over, we are hit with the aftershocks, and it’s as if we are experiencing the loss all over again, but this time without the protective effects of the original shock. If we’ve worked through our particular issues — our shoulda, woulda, coulda’s — we are left with pure heartbreak.

Our family and friends (the few who stuck with us) have moved past the loss and they expect us to move on, too. One of my blog readers, a professional consultant in emotional-mental health who has been supportive of my efforts to demystify grief, wrote, “At this time of the journey, (the second year) people are at such risk of going into severe depression, of jumping into relationships they usually wouldn’t enter etc because everyone expects they’ll be ‘moving on,’ ‘creating a new life,’ when in fact the shock is only now subsiding (the emotional shock of losing the loved one is so under appreciated and I believe lasts for at least twelve months).” She hopes I will continue to share my journey, because “the next eight to twelve months will be just as important for folks to read. It seems to me the second year is about another level of acceptance . . .about the recreation of life whilst initially hating that it has to be recreated at all . . . about choosing life and the potential for happiness when death has taken our loved one . . . about choosing to find different lights to shed meaning on our existence.”

She makes good points, and I wouldn’t mind continuing to chronicle my journey into grief (despite the fact that I’ve alienated most of my blog readers). The problem is, I have nothing to say. Or at least, not much. For the most part, my situation isn’t changing. I’m caring for my 94-year-old father (or, to be more accurate, I’m staying with him so that he can keep his independence as long as possible), so I’m not doing much except taking a few isolated trips in an effort to fill the hole my mate left behind. It won’t be until after my father goes (and I could be 94 myself by that time!) that I will be able to start the rebuilding process, try to find a new life, a new place, a new reason for living. I’m still in a holding pattern. Obviously, I’m not totally stagnating, but I’m not moving on in any significant way, and I can’t because of my living situation. I’m not even having any revelations as I walk in the desert. (Of course, the heat could be baking my brain, burning off any thoughts before they form.)

I have no hopes at the moment, but I am not despairing, not weighted with hopelessness. I’m merely waiting for what life throws at me next. Perhaps this waiting is another stage of grief, a hiatus before the real healing begins, and if so, I’ll be ready. Dealing with grief as it comes, without the frill of foolish optimism, has taught me that I can handle anything. (Well, anything but torture, but I have no interest in being a martyr for any cause, so I should be okay.)