Monday, November 16, 2020

Coping with “Brain Fog” in Grief: Suggested Resources

[Reviewed and updated February 20, 2022]

Your mind is working so hard, there’s very little brain power left over to track more than a paragraph in a book, or remember that your car keys go on the hook, not in the freezer. It’s hard to think in an orderly, concise fashion when you’re reeling from loss.
  ~ Megan Devine

A reader writes: I am in my middle 40's and 3 years ago today we buried my dad. My parents were married for 45 years at the time. Our family is really close and I am so lucky to have the parents I have. My mom is still alive and is keeping busy and seems pretty healthy and active. Once my dad passed away I have not been the same person. I can feel a huge shift in my personality and just how I feel physically. I used to have such a drive to do my best at work and climb the ranks. I used to remember everything. My mind was clear and focused. I seem to get irritated more easily now.

 I have this brain fog that will not go away that affects everything. I can't remember things for very long. Things are not clear and I feel like I have no energy. I have gained over 80 pounds since he passed away. I am not trying to blame my weight gain and lack of energy on anything but my own doing. But I really feel like I am in a huge rut that I try to claw my way out of to just fall back down again. 

I am lucky to have a support group in my family. I have been to therapists and psychologists and had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, insomnia, and anxiety. I know I need to grab the bull by the horns and get my stuff together and take care of myself. I know I am not the same person and I wish I was. I was so much easier to live with. At this point I don't know if I will ever get this brain fog to go away or have the gumption I used too. Has anybody else had this issue?

My response: My dear, I can assure you that what you are experiencing in the wake of your father’s death is not at all unusual. As I've written in my book, Finding Your Way Through Grief: A Guide for The First Year:

As the fog of shock and denial begins to lift, you will find yourself headed into the very heart of grief, and you’ll become painfully aware of how very much you have lost. An entire gamut of feelings washes over you in overwhelming waves of sorrow. You are flooded with intense, raw feelings of anguish, sadness and fear as you realize that life will never, ever be the same. You may be flooded with questions, too: Why did this happen to me? How will I be able to go on? How will I be able to face the future without this person? When will I get myself together? You may be flooded with bittersweet memories: all the things you would have, could have, or should have said and done, and now will never be able to say or do. You may have difficulty concentrating and remembering, and feel incapable of making the simplest decision. This is commonly known as “brain fog”or “griever’s fog.” You may experience nightmares, dreams, and phobias; you may fear that you’re going crazy, and may even want to die.

Know that it’s normal to ask such questions, and you need not expect to have all the answers. Asking such questions can be the beginning of dealing with loss.

When you feel anxious or afraid, recognize this as a natural part of the mourning process. Your confidence in yourself and your sense of safety in this world have been shaken by this death.

Be gentle with yourself; don’t push yourself too hard, and don’t expect too much. Remember that you are physically and emotionally vulnerable now.

Take some time off if you can.

Surround yourself with helpers. If there are others who can take care of details and help you get through the rituals of death, let them do so. If you prefer to be alone, say so.

Focus on your own survival, and take it one day at a time.

I encourage you to do some reading about what is normal (and therefore to be expected) in grief, as I think you'll discover that you're not alone in your reactions, and you'll learn what you might do to manage them more effectively. See, for example, the links I've listed at the base of this post. 

I also invite you to read what others have to say about the effects of grief on the brain:

How Coping With Grief Can Affect Your Brain by Henry Ford Health System Staff

How to Get Through the Fog of Grief by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

How We Learn from Love and Loss « Mary Frances O'Connor Interview

The Grieving Brain by Mary Frances O'Connor

The Long Reach of Grief « Brain and Life Magazine

Widow's Brain by Terri Unkelhaeuser 

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