Blog post

Learning To Live With Grief Brain

November 5, 2018

Losing my daughter has changed the way I think.  I don’t just mean my perspective on life has changed, I mean the actual cognitive process of thinking. I have grief brain.

Grief brain is what happens to your exhausted mind after the loss of a loved one.  I’m not sure how much scientific evidence there is to back it up, but I’ve read plenty of anecdotal accounts to know that it’s a thing.  

For me, grief brain settled in after the stillbirth of my daughter.  At first, I thought my memory lapses and my inattentiveness could be chalked up to the exhaustion of experiencing a stillbirth.  It seemed normal that I would have a tricky time remembering when to take my medications and keep track of appointments. A complicated medical situation was new for me and I had also just delivered a baby.  Anyone in my situation would feel confused.

But, as my physical condition improved, I noticed that the fog didn’t seem to be lifting from my brain.  So, I figured it must be exhaustion. But after three months, and plenty of sleep, I came to wonder if this was something more. This cloudy, scattered brain seemed to be a symptom of my grief.

Related: Hypochondria, Anxiety, And Grief: What Comes After Loss

I began to do some research.  If this was a thing that grievers experienced, then surely there were others who could relate. My assumptions were right. There were people out there who wrote about their experience with grief brain.  They described exactly what I was feeling–a brain so overcome with emotion that there was little space left to function in the everyday world.

There it was. It wasn’t great news, but it was validating.  It reminded me of the way I felt when I first read another woman’s stillbirth story.  I no longer felt broken and damaged.  Instead, I felt a sense of comfort from knowing I wasn’t alone in this.

It’s been over two years since my daughter was stillborn and my grief brain seems like it’s here to stay.  Maybe time will help some more of the fog to lift, but in the meantime, I still struggle with my short-term memory.  I have difficulty staying in a conversation without drifting off. I often find myself forgetting the words for everyday items.  It’s incredibly frustrating.

Living with grief brain is not impossible, but it requires some extra thought.  (A cruel irony for a brain that is already overworked.) 

Here are some of the things I do to help me function with my poor, overworked grief brain.

  • Let others know what’s going on.  By letting them know you’re aware of the changes in your thinking and memory, it can allow them to be open to helping you when they see you struggle.
  • Write things down.  Use your phone, a notebook, or sticky notes.  Come up with a system and write down everything that is prone to slipping away.  Jot down grocery lists, names of new people you’ve met, even the words to that song you just can’t get out of your head.  Writing these things down gives them a place to settle and gives your brain a break.
  • Avoid multi-tasking.  In our world, we’ve become accustomed to saving time and doing multiple tasks at once.  In my experience with grief brain, I find more consistent success when I focus on one task at a time.  If you know a task is going to require greater concentration, try to be mindful of the environment you’re working in.  
  • Stay hydrated.  Drinking more water really helps me when I’m feeling extra foggy.  Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but being hydrated is never a bad thing.
  • Slow down.  Your brain is tired.  Treat it well. Take time to rest and nourish your brain.  Find activities like coloring or meditation that give your brain a chance to focus on one thing so it can recuperate.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself grace. Accept that you will make mistakes. Remember that you are constantly doing the incredibly important work of loving and grieving your child. Sometimes that job leaves little room for anything else.

Oddly enough, grief brain makes sense to me.  Losing my daughter sent my heart into overdrive leaving it battered and tired.

Why would my brain fare any differently?

 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

  • Rachel Whalen

    Rachel Whalen is a mother, wife, and Kindergarten teacher from Barre, Vermont. Her life's work is to keep the memory of her daughter, Dorothy, alive through words both spoken and written. Rachel shares her family's journey through loss and all that has come after on her blog: An Unexpected Family Outing.

    10 Comments

    • Patricia J Katz

      November 5, 2018 at 2:41 pm

      Thank you so much for this wonderful article!

    • Tj

      November 5, 2018 at 4:53 pm

      I lost my husband 8 mos ago and have talked to others who have had well. We all feel as you do. This fog that doesn’t lift. They have done MRI of people who have experienced shock grief and they have seen actual areas of brain trauma from it. Your brain actually needs to heal. It’s a tough road. 🙁

    • writersofgrace

      November 5, 2018 at 5:47 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. When my daughter passed, I could barely walk across the floor without completely forgetting what I was doing… If the kids asked for a drink of water, I’d go to make it, only to be sweeping food off into the floor. (Seriously)

      This was in May. At this moment, I can’t get my thought process in enough order, to figure out what direction to go in to.

      I can relate, deeply. Thanks for this.

    • James Tisibele

      November 5, 2018 at 9:55 pm

      Thank you, I lost a son two months ago, and it’s like it happened two days ago. My brain is in overdrive…..

      1. writersofgrace

        November 6, 2018 at 7:38 am

        Very sorry for your loss.

    • Jennifer Hayden

      November 6, 2018 at 3:21 am

      My 19 yr old daughter died in 2015….i thought I was getting dementia. Thank you for your article. Now I know what’s wrong with me.

      1. writersofgrace

        November 6, 2018 at 7:44 am

        My daughter would of been 10 this month. Its been a hard month. I’m not looking forward to the holidays… Life sure has a way of drop kicking you in the face. Brain… Soul…

        I’m very sorry for your loss. I hear it gets better with time but, I’m not much of a believer in time. I think as a parent, we tend to accept the grief and come to a realization that once you lose a child, nothing will ever be the same.

    • Bonty Niland

      November 6, 2018 at 6:57 am

      I believe you! My son died in 2000 and i still have grief brain. Life can never be the same. There are people who have lost children and there are people who haven’t. That is the great divide! Our hopes and dreams for our dead children don’t go away. Your advice to be gentle with ourselves is so true. Thank you for your article.

      1. writersofgrace

        November 6, 2018 at 7:54 am

        Very sorry for your loss. And it’s really good to know I’ve not completely lost my mind. I’m gonna look into it a bit more. I really appreciated this article.

    • Taryn R Bell

      November 9, 2018 at 8:18 am

      Grief brain is 100% real for me! I have seen it played out in my life in many different ways. I have lost my awareness of time- I don’t know what month it is or where in the month we are. My awareness of what part of the day I am in has recovered for the most part- I think that’s because the daylight and darkness are things my mind picks up on and so it “re-learned” that. I have lived in the same house/area for 30 years- I forget how to get to where I am going fairly often. My grief counselor confirmed early on that all of this (and other symptoms) was normal for someone dealing with traumatic grief. So, when I am lost or try to put something on the April calendar only to realize it is September and April is long gone, I have a little voice in my head saying, “It’s ok, I’m ok…. ” over and over again. The first time I forgot how to to get to the house of one of my best friends, the 1st person I met when I moved here 30 years ago, I kept saying, “I don’t have dementia, I’m ok, it’s ok….” I don’t think too much has improved in the last 10 months since my son died, but I have developed skills like you listed and keep telling myself that I’m ok. Thank you for writing this article. Thank you for helping all of us who are walking this painful journey to know that we aren’t alone.

    {Thoughts}

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