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.

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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