How Grief is Impacting My Brain

These thistle were in Larry's funeral arrangement from the family
Thistle from one of the flower arrangements at Larry’s funeral*

It’s four weeks today since Larry died.  I hate writing that because it feels like time is a river rushing me away from him.  STOP!   Bring him back! Is it possible he’s truly gone?  He was here, smiling, chuckling, warm and cozy. The incomprehensibility of the loss hurts –  even more now than at first.  It hurts physically.  It hurts mentally.  So much so that I looked to make some sense of it and Googled how grief is impacting my brain.

I have trouble making decisions, even little ones.  I have trouble remembering things.  My brain feels like a hairball – all tangled and messy.  I am exhausted, but not sleepy. I wake up not knowing what day it is.

My normal filters of what I say and how I react are warped.  I feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, and how little there is to do. I don’t know what to do next.  Though I’m lonely I need to be alone more than I’d expect. Being with people takes so much energy – talking, understanding, looking interested, answering questions.  I’m in a gray fog:  grief brain, not depression.

What I read about how my brain is being impacted by grief made sense.  That death is incomprehensible to us.  We struggle to process it.  We use up reserves.  We use up the glucose our brain needs to function, just like our muscles.  It makes no sense to us intellectually so we process it physically.  Our heads hurt.  Our bodies hurt.  Our energy is depleted.  A concussion of emotion. Just like concussions that don’t necessarily show on an MRI, the body, the physical brain, still needs time to heal to function properly.  In fact, one neurologist, in her book Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain  , is calling for a definition of “emotional traumatic brain injury.”

Research shows that  grief frequently leads to changes in the endocrine, immune, autonomic, nervous, and cardiovascular systems; all of these are fundamentally influenced by brain function and neurotransmitters.  Rates of heart attacks and car accidents are elevated for people who are grieving.

Another article reported “that several regions of the brain play a role in emotion, including areas within the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex. These involve emotional regulation, memory, multi-tasking, organization and learning. When you’re grieving, a flood of neurochemicals and hormones dance around in your head. ‘There can be a disruption in hormones that results in specific symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue and anxiety,’ says Dr. Jannel Phillips,”  a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health System.

It’s helpful to know all that.  It’s reassuring, in a way, to know my brain isn’t going to function well because it’s busy grieving.  I should lower my expectations.

I should drive really carefully, or not at all.   I should postpone decisions where possible.  Everyone keeps asking me whether I’m going to stay living where I am.  Who knows?  Don’t ask me.  Am I going to move west to be near two of my children?  I don’t know – don’t ask me.

I tried to buy a car to replace our wheelchair van this past weekend.  I didn’t want to buy a car without Larry.  A car for one.  My brother and his wife were trying so hard to help me but I couldn’t tell one car from another – couldn’t remember the details of each.  Felt overwhelmed and exhausted.  The pressure to make a decision when nothing made sense felt increasingly heavy.  What do I do?  Suddenly, yesterday, I realized I could keep driving the wheelchair van until I’m ready.  Maybe the decision will get easier as my brain heals.

I am grieving not only the death of my husband, the loss of my soul mate, but also the end of my caregiving, the years of having to be strong every minute of every day.  It is blindingly exhausting, confusing, draining, painful.  No wonder the grief is impacting my brain.  I need time, lots of time, to heal.  To let my brain heal. It’s exhausting to think about.

  • The thistle connotes endurance and fortitude, as well as bravery, courage, and loyalty.  It is said you should wear a thistle whenever the stage of your life seems overwhelming.

 

 

 

Why Funeral and Mourning Rituals Matter

I have buried my husband.  We celebrated formally, as he requested.  We euologized him, for the incredible loving man he was: the husband, the father, the friend.  As mourners, we accompanied him to the York cemetery and a lone bagpiper played as the sun shone down on us.   As mourners, we broke bread together.  As mourners we drank together.  As mourners we remembered him, and laughed and cried.   Funeral and mourning rituals matter to me in a way I never understood before.

Funeral wreaths on our door signify that this house is in mourning
Black wreaths made by our dear friend Joan signify that this house is in mourning.

Now, as a widow in mourning, I have returned home alone.  After being with family constantly since he died eighteen days ago, I have come home alone to our house.  I have eaten my first meal alone.  I have slept in our bed alone.   There are black wreaths on our front doors, and in some ways I wish I could wear black all the time.  But what would it mean today?

Victorian grief cultures of mourning were structured and intense with black symbolic of spiritual darkness.  Now black is just a stylish color.

Widows wore their black “widow’s weeds” for life in some parts of Europe.  I remember living in the Italian neighborhood of Silver Lake while I went to White Plains High School.  I would see the grandmothers walking with their black skirts, black blouses, and black scarves covering their heads.  I knew they were widows.

I remember reading Victorian novels where the widow would remove herself from public or social activities, and would graduate from heavy black to gray then lavender clothing as her loss receded and she moved into half mourning.  People knew.

I took the dog for a walk at sunset yesterday, purposely avoiding the park where people gather.  But one of the neighbors that I know only slightly pulled his car over and said hello.   He asked “what’s new?”  I just shrugged.  If I had said anything, I would have started to cry.  If we had a culture of mourning and I were wearing black he wouldn’t have stopped.  He wouldn’t have asked.  He would have known.

In the past there were mourning rituals which acknowledged that death impacted family members differently according to their relationships.  Mourning customs for a widow were from four years to at least a year and a day, parents or children of the deceased were encouraged to spend six months, and grandparents and siblings were to spend three months in morning. Other family members should spend thirty days in mourning.

The hairdresser doing my hair several days before the funeral told me she knew what I was going through because her grandmother had just died.  I nodded and said appropriate things but I wanted to yell “that’s not the same at all!!!”

Our culture today encourages us to “get on with life.”  “Go back to work.”  “Keep busy.”  We, the mourners, are not expected to acknowledge our loss  in a public way once the funeral is over.  In fact, if we do, it can make some people uncomfortable.  We don’t even allow ourselves to appreciate the significance of the loss, perhaps because it’s so incomprehensible.  But also because we don’t have the ongoing ritual of mourning.

I’m not wearing black today, but my heart, my body, my soul – they are in spiritual darkness.   The black wreaths on my door are my public acknowledgement that funeral and mourning rituals matter.