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

Did You Experience Widow’s/Widower’s Fog

I’m working on my new book about grief. Currently I am looking for something different to say about widow’s fog. Although it’s supposed to be universal, I never really experienced this grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and fogginess that people say shrouded them after the death of a spouse or life mate, mostly because the things I did to help make sense of my grief were the very things that get rid of widow’s fog. The fog basically comes from an overloaded prefrontal cortex. Most people, when faced with the enormity of grief, try to suppress the emotions and think their way out, and this overloads their brains even more. But I didn’t. I just let everything flow. I’d walk for hours in the desert, feeling my grief, letting my mind wander without trying to think about anything in particular, and apparently, this “not thinking” is the very thing that reduces the overload. Also, telling ourselves the truth about what we feel and labeling our emotions help us through the fog, and that is what I did on this blog. Just being in the moment helps, and I did that, too.

Consequently, I have nothing really to say on the matter and no way to describe how it feels, and such a common part of grief should be included in my book. Did you experience this fog? If so, would you mind telling me about it? You can either leave your answer here as a comment or email me at pat@bertramsblog.com. If you have a scientific bent and can lend me your expertise, that, too, would be appreciated.

Oddly, I’d never even heard of this fog until a couple of years ago when I did a dance performance for a widows and widowers group. So maybe it’s not as universal as it’s supposed to be? If you didn’t experience it, I’d like to know that, too.

While I’m at it — what did you do to comfort yourself and relieve the stress of grief? I have written that chapter several times, and it never comes out right. I mean, how many times can I say I cried, and screamed, and beat up defenseless sofas? That’s not enough to fill a chapter.

(For those of you who are interested in what I’ve been up to and why I haven’t been blogging, this book is the reason. Lots of thinking, researching, writing.)

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.