One of the most important reasons for preparing for the death of a loved one is something called “grief brain or widow’s fog”. As I was researching this topic, I came across an on online article at SimpleMost.com written in 2018 by Brittany Anas called How Grief Affects Our Minds and Bodies. It captures pretty perfectly what I, and many other widows and widowers that I have interviewed, experienced after the loss of our loved one.
What Are The Common Symptoms Of Grief?
Psychological and physical symptoms of grief can be all-encompassing, and grief can disrupt our normal way of functioning, explains Catherine Burnette, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Tulane University who specializes in mental health.
“There is no one way that grief manifests itself,” she says. “Just as people may express anger or frustration differently, grief is very individual as to when and how it surfaces.”
Some psychological symptoms, according to Burnette, can include the following:
Disorientation because of the rapid change in life circumstances
Common physical symptoms, Burnette says, can include the following:
Not being able to eat or sleep normally
Your body can definitely suffer during the grieving process, explains author and grief expert Heather Stang, who has a master’s degree in thanatology, which is the study of death, dying and bereavement. People who are grieving often report feeling tension in their chest, muscles and throat, as well as joint pain, shortness of breath, exhaustion, nausea, muscle weakness, dry mouth and clumsiness, Stang says.
Scientists studying the impact of bereavement on people’s health have found that the chances of a heart attack or stroke doubles after a partner’s death. Researchers believe this to be an adverse physiological response to serious grief.
From my own personal research within the many widow/widower support groups I’m in, that “serious grief” can often be attributed to the shock of having to make immediate decisions not only for the deceased, but for one’s future, and not being prepared to make them.
These are some responses from widows and widowers of their grief brain or “widow’s fog” experiences.
Lynn G. I couldn’t remember things I’d known for a long time or things I needed to buy or do. I couldn’t learn new things or stay focused
Doug F. I’ve described it to others like being in a bubble. Some of my emotions are exaggerated and others seem to be strangely muted. I often feel a little detached.
Debra P. Before Jay died I was an avid reader. I used to have about 4 books I was reading at the same time. Loved reading just about anything i could get my hands on. After he died I had no interest in reading. I would pick one up to read and read the same page several times because i couldn't focus enough on the storyline to remember what had read.
Carol M. For me the fog was not so much forgetting things, but the inability to accomplish things. I remember a lot and knew what needed to be done but simply couldn’t do it. Everything felt so overwhelming. I could sit at the table and stare at the dishes, but I couldn’t get up and do them. My SIL came for a visit and I asked her if she would do them for me while we talked. For me the fog is a weight, holding me down. It such a crazy thing, almost like I am watching myself from the outside.
The article goes on to inform as to why this happens.
Why Does Grief Affect Us This Way?
The short answer? Grief interrupts our normal brain functioning, and our brain is in charge of sending signals to the rest of our body.
Grief can cause changes in brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, says Dr. Richard Honaker, M.D., chief medical officer of Your Doctors Online.
“These chemicals work in a fine balance to keep our moods and functioning smooth,” Honaker says. “Grief throws them out of balance.”
Grief affects our limbic system, which is the system of nerves and networks in the brain, as well as the pre-frontal cortex, Burnette explains. This can throw off how we regulate our emotions, our concentration levels, our ability to multi-task and our memory function. Hormonal changes can also affect eating and sleep patterns, and can cause anxiety and restlessness, Burnette explains, which—as you can imagine—can drastically affect how you feel.
While, in almost all scenarios, mourning the loss of a loved one involves the same parts of the brain from person to person, biology is only one piece of the equation, says Raichbach. People deal with emotional stress differently and have various coping mechanisms.
Along with my widow/widower peers, we’ve discovered that all of these normal, some would say necessary, brain imbalances during our grieving process are also the time when crucial legal, financial, medical and personal decisions and documents need to have attention and focus. Though all of our widow’s fog experiences have manifested differently, we ALL agree that most of these crucial decisions can (and frankly, should) be made ahead of time to alleviate much of the stress that causes the fog in the first place.
Corey and Katie entered widowhood in 2016 after losing spouses to cancer. They met and connected in a widow/widower support group and later married. One of the principles they learned from their own experiences and those of other surviving spouses is that the more prepared a surviving spouse is on a financial, legal, emotional, and practical level, the better they will adjust to widowhood. They will maintain their independence and control of their assets and be freer to properly grieve and move forward in life. Conversely, those who are not prepared are more likely to have their lives flipped upside down. They may need to move and uproot kids because they can't afford the mortgage, rely on family or other charities to financially support them, and/or change jobs to allow them to better serve as a single parent. We hope to share what we've learned and help other families properly get their affairs in order and be prepared with confidence, peace of mind, and in control of their assets.