Grief can be a powerful instrument when dealing with loss and trauma. This is one of the most powerful emotions a person can experience because of the physical and psychological effects it can have on their well-being. Losing a spouse is profoundly hard and transformative for a person and this can affect the way your brain processes and adapts to grief. A side effect of your brain trying to cope with the loss of a spouse can result in a term called “widow brain” and learning how to manage it can be extremely important to your grieving process.
Defining Widow Brain
Before we can further explain the intricacies of “widow brain”, let’s first discuss what being a widow means. The dictionary defines a widow as “a woman who has lost her spouse or partner by death and usually has not remarried”. Widowhood can be a stressful turning point in a person’s life that can be accompanied by financial strain, depression, change in social relationships, and this can result in extreme psychological distress. This psychological distress can develop into what is commonly known as “widow brain” because of the unintended side effects that come with losing a spouse.
Widow brain is often classified as grief fog, brain fog or grief brain because of the effects of grief on the brain. Losing a spouse triggers such an extreme emotional response that the brain attempts to shield itself. It can often feel like you are unable to think straight or that you have a very limited mental capacity, especially in the first few months following the death. A person can feel a sudden rush of numbness that later manifests into emotional, mental, and physical symptoms.
Widow Brain Symptoms
The symptoms of widow brain are different from the five stages of grief which are typically associated with extreme loss or the death of a loved one. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but these do not intersect with widow brain. Widow brain symptoms impact a person’s day-to-day life and can make the simplest of tasks seem like fighting an uphill battle.
Let’s break down the symptoms associated with widow brain:
The emotional symptoms of widow brain are unfathomable, to say the least. Your body and brain are in a fight to cope and understand the loss that is happening simultaneously. This can result in numbness that shields you from the trauma initially but then can have the result of hitting you all at once. Typically these can result in emotional outbursts to crying, anger, and deep sorrow. These are emotions that can correlate with grief and result in helping you mourn the loss of your loved one.
The neurological symptoms of widow brain can make a person feel as if they can’t make sense of what is going on in their head. Typically people can become forgetful and unable to manage daily activities like turning on the washing machine or operating a car. This short-term memory loss happens within the first few months and is just another symptom of your brain processing and grieving the loss of your spouse.
Between the mental and emotional anguish you are feeling, it’s normal that your physical body will begin to start feeling the effects of the loss. Having the energy to manage anything that was once deemed “normal” can result in feeling overwhelmed or easily exhausted by the most simple activities. Some people shut down and are incapable of doing basic human necessities like eating, bathing, or getting dressed. Once you begin to settle into your grief you’ll rediscover that your energy starts recuperating.
How Long Does Widow Brain Last?
One of the most common questions people have when experiencing widow brain is wondering how long it will last. The effects of widow brain can last anywhere from 12-18 months from the initial loss, but normally you’ll start seeing some improvement within the first 2-3 months. At around 6 months people report regaining full capacity and function as they are still navigating their grief. It’s important to remember that there is no definitive timeline for grieving and coping with the loss of your spouse, but widow brain will reduce over time. There can be moments later on in the process that trigger widow brain which can be significant life milestones like the holidays or a birthday.
How You Can Manage Widow Brain
While widow brain is unavoidable since it affects everyone differently, there are plenty of resources and support methods to help you cope as you are going through it. It’s important to remain patient with yourself and understand that grieving takes time and you can’t rush the process. It’s important to lean on your family and friends and give yourself the grace to seek assistance at this crucial point of your grieving process. I’ve compiled a few resources from my book, “The Widow’s Survival Guide,” that you can reference as you are navigating the complexities of this process.
Tell your tribute when you are struggling: Having open and honest communication with your loved ones can be instrumental in helping work through widow brain. Whether it's friends, family, or a counselor, be truthful and honest with how you are feeling and what help you may need.
Develop a routine you can stick with on the tough days: Create a routine that is sustainable and manageable for you and your family as you take each day one at a time. Be consistent and clear in order to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Plan for the crap days: There will be days when you feel like doing absolutely nothing. That’s okay, set aside time for a movie day or time to watch a TV show, guilt-free. Call your friends and let them know you need them for support. Bad days are inevitable, plan ahead.
Looking for additional resources and programs? Explore my dedicated widow support programs to help give you support and strength.