How Brains Process the Death of a Loved One

That brain fog happens for a reason

Heather McLeod
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readNov 9, 2018


Photo: fcscafeine/Getty Images

OOnce 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?



Heather McLeod
Human Parts

Writing about losing my young husband to cancer, grief, widowhood & this new, Plan B life.