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.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “How Grief is Impacting My Brain”

  1. Nancy, I think your instinct to step back from major decisions is an excellent one. I can’t imagine how hard this is on you, but I am so impressed with your perspective and insight.

  2. I lost my sweet husband suddenly on Good Friday three years ago. Still am going through much of the feelings you are experiencing; wish I could tell you it all goes away, but for me it comes in waves; remember to be kind to yourself…

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear about your husband, but only those who have experienced understand, I guess!

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