How Brains Process the Death of a Loved One
Once upon a time, not so long ago, before my husband died of cancer, I was a capable person. I could multitask the heck out of 14-hour workdays and juggle dozens of to-dos with efficiency.
I would go to the hardware store for item X and, while there, also remember to get items Y and Z.
I could form sentences and find all the right words. I could follow a logical argument and question the gaps.
I am no longer this person. I hope to have a functioning brain again someday, but right now I’m learning to live with this constant fog in my synapses.
At first, I thought it was lack of sleep, like in the baby-brain days after our son was born, but I’m clocking nine to 10 hours a night. And it’s not life exhaustion, like when I was balancing farm work with a full-time job. My kid and I have it pretty easy these days.
Then I read some grief books, and we talked about physiological grief in my bereavement support group, and I realized my brain hasn’t stopped working. It’s just preoccupied.
At our most basic level, we are animals, and even though I know Brock has died, my brain is having trouble grasping this.
Apparently, my brain has put a big pot of “Where’s Brock?” on the back burner of my thinking stove. It’s trying to reconcile more than 11 years of memories where Brock was always nearby with the present reality of no Brock.
Making the Connection
For months after we lost Brock, I couldn’t get past my memories of his last four days. In some ways, those days were beautiful and perfect. But it was horrible to know that he was trapped inside his paralyzed body, unable to communicate. I can still see his eyes, always slightly open and glazed. I kept feeling like he was trying to tell me something.
These memories terrified me. What if that was how I would always remember Brock? What if those final four days overwrote all the happy memories of our decade together? What if instead of remembering a brilliant, funny, energetic man, I could only hold onto the weak, helpless, dying man he’d become?
So I fought against those memories of the end.
All my energy is going into solving this riddle of why Brock isn’t here.
But maybe my brain kept bringing me back to those four days because it needed to understand that Brock had died. It was the connecting memory between Brock being alive and present and Brock being dead and gone. I was consciously avoiding thinking about that time, but my brain needed to relive and dissect the experience in order to reconcile the loss.
With my brain busy wondering where Brock has gone, I am operating at half capacity. This leads to the brain fog—and also to constant exhaustion. I’m not tired. I just don’t have much energy. All my energy is going into solving this riddle of why Brock isn’t here.
I find myself saying (usually to cashiers when I mess up when paying for things) that I haven’t had enough tea yet or I didn’t get enough sleep. It’s easier to offer these excuses than to say, “My brain is confused because my husband died.”
Memory Therapy Can Help
One way I can help my brain reconcile itself to Brock’s death is to share memories. This reminds my brain that the past is not the present. But it’s not always easy to share Brock-related memories. Reminding people of his death brings down the mood. It makes me feel vulnerable. If I cry, that’s healthy for me but causes others to feel uncomfortable.
Here’s the process:
- Something reminds me of Brock.
- I decide whether I’m comfortable enough with the people/situation to cry, should that happen.
- Assuming I’m in a safe space, I share the memory.
- There is a moment of awkwardness for all involved. Others wonder what to say next. Do they change the subject or respond to the memory? I half-regret sharing and feel very sad about Brock’s death.
- They usually change the subject. I don’t cry.
For the record: I’m no better than anyone else when it comes to these situations. I’ve been on the receiving end when someone in mourning shares a memory, and all I want to do is give them a moment of silence and then move on. It feels cruel to dig deeper by asking questions or to risk saying the wrong thing.
But know it’s a compliment to have someone share a memory with you. They feel safe with you. They’ve risked feeling vulnerable with you, knowing they might cry.
Sharing memories is important to reconciling the loss and helping a brain focus on the present. You help by listening. As for how to respond in a way other than changing the subject, I’ve come up with some ideas: Share your own memory of the person, if you can. “Do you want to talk about that more? I can listen.”
And, for bonus points, if you want to help someone you love who is grieving, create a safe, private space with no time pressures and share your own memory. Open the door and see if they’re ready to walk through it.
This post was written on July 4, 2018, nine months after Brock died.