Grief impacts our brains

Grief can impact our ability to concentrate, make decisions, find things, or think clearly.

You may have heard of “baby brain,” where new parents experience memory lapses and absent-mindedness during early parenthood. Cognitive effects of grief are sometimes referred to as “grief brain” or “grief fog.” Grief can impact our ability to concentrate and make decisions. It can be difficult to think clearly and remember things. Items might be misplaced more often. Names forgotten. Tasks undone.

I definitely felt like, that, the stress and the shock, especially initially, impacted my ability to focus, my ability to get things done. Um, it felt like I had always an insurmountable pile of trivial things to do.

I didn't have time to think deeply, uh, about ... I think that was part of why the future seemed so emorphous. I, I couldn't think that abstractly or that deeply about anything. There was too many, uh, little things like are there diapers in the house (laughs).

Um, I couldn't believe it when I had the realization that you could go in the grocery store and buy two gallons of milk at one time and they wouldn't stop you - like that's okay. (Laughs). I didn't have to go to the store every other day. I could buy two gallons of milk at one time. Wow. Uh, there of the- those kinds of moments. Um, even after it got easier, I have experienced attention and focus issues specifically when I'm at work.

Be gentle and patient.

Whether you are grieving or supporting someone who is grieving, understand that cognitive effects are normal in grief.

Play Video placeholderAjai Blue-Saunders: Forgetfulness

One time in the store I had packed up all the groceries and I'm checking out and then something in the store reminded me of him. I went to check out, they bagged everything up, I could not remember my pin to save my life. They're looking at me and I'm trying to share with her, I just lost my husband, you know? I'm in a crisis, I need help. Let me find my pin and I don't know it. So they moved my food to the side and then I had to go get a non-pin credit card, come back and buy the food. And, that experience happens more than you would thing to widows.

Play Video placeholderNic Hepton: Confusion

The early days, um, the early days are all of the things you might think they are. You're upset, you're visibly emotional. You have waves of emotion that you can't stop. Anywhere, supermarket, in the car or at work, right?

Um, but grief is, is different when you get into it. Like, really different. You lose track of time. You have no sense of time. Um, and I mean weeks and months, you have no sense. Um, you're confused, like it's just confusing. You don't understand even, even take the grief out of it, you don't understand why other things are happening. Like, you're confused like you have brain fog all the time.

Your ability to hold intention, and attention, for someone is tiny. It really is. And then just the emotional nature of the fact that you never feel like you're moving forward. You always feel like you're treading water. With me, when I was grieving I wanted to feel like I was passing through a phase or a stage, and it took me a long time to accept that I wasn't. I wasn't passing through phases, I'd always be re-visiting phases, it just really depended on how long or how deep I'd be in that phase for. And even now, like sometimes I'll look at my phone and I'll see a picture of her and it still brings tears to my eyes now. But, the tears don't last very long now. It still, it still - in the moments where I think I've forgotten it, it reminds me, and that always bring out a response.

Play Video placeholderSteve Bolich: Difficulty Processing Information

The very initial part was just the true feeling of inwardly being knocked over. Those words of, "Nate is dead", was absolutely a shock.

I think cognitively, now I look back, I find it kind of interesting, there's a little bit of humor in it in the fact that when people would be coming over to me and telling me, "Okay, Steve. Here's what's going to happen. We've got the viewing on this day. We're going to be having the burial at this time, and then Nate's service is going to be here." It would all make sense to me but it was as if my memory was just not in gear. I was remembering none of it. Then they would go to leave, and I would say, "I know you were giving me a bunch of times and dates, but I don't know anything." Then they'd say, "Don't worry about it."

Play Video placeholderCarmichael Khan: Altered Perception of Time

I would see my Mondays turned into Thursdays. Days would pass and I would not know - "I think it's Thursday already and I haven't done this yet" - like that. So, time would move a lot slower than um, than before. So I wouldn't be conscious of Monday, Tuesday, Wed-I would say, "Dang it's Thursday already?" - like that. And I would have to scramble and get some things done, which I had planned to do on Monday. But I'm moving that slow, in time. And things, um, I would say, it's a good thing you mentioned that, time slows down. And I wanted it to slow down. You know? Um, and let's just uh, deal with what had to be. What I couldn't get done, well fine.

Play Video placeholderJayne Agena: Memory Problems

It's harder for me to remember names. I totally know my students faces, but even now, ask me their name after ... it's very sad. I hope they don't watch this. Now I don't remember always their names. Um, it's sort of the, it must be a left brain thing. After a certain time of the day I don't, it's hard to do those kind ... It has, it's hard to do math. It's hard to do names. Remembering words or names. It just takes a little longer. Uh, I think to, just in general, certain things just take longer to process and to make decisions and to see all of the other factors that go into something.

Headshot of Megan Devine

“If you think of the mind as having 100 circuits of energy, grief takes up 99 of those. Grief is like your brain turning this information over and over and over and trying to find a place where it fits. It’s not going to fit, but your mind is trying to make it so. It’s trying to make this story work out in a way that is acceptable. How do you make this death acceptable? You can’t, but your brain's working on it, which means that you have one unit of energy left for everything else."

Megan Devine, Psychotherapist and author of It's OK that You’re Not OK