The death of a loved one can always be one of the most stressful events in life. Temporary memory loss associated with trauma, loss, or grief is a side-effect of bereavement that can lead to dysfunctional grief when left untreated.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Does Grief Affect Your Memory?
- What Can You Do If You’re Experiencing Memory Loss or Brain Fog While Grieving?
- How Can You Help a Loved One Who’s Experiencing Grief and Memory Loss?
This type of grief is also known to take a toll on your physical and mental well-being, with the deterioration of your memory being a significant byproduct of ongoing distress.
So how can you avoid having memory loss when dealing with grief and anxiety? It helps when you understand how grief affects your memory and daily cognitive functions. Below, you’ll find information on why you experience grief-related memory loss and how you can avoid some of the most common pitfalls.
How Does Grief Affect Your Memory?
As your brain is attempting to recover from the trauma of loss, you may experience a deep biological response that affects your psychological and emotional responses. You may also find yourself feeling the physical effects of your loss that all start with the disruption of your internal reactions.
It is important to note that grief and memory loss are not always interrelated. However, memory loss as a result of grief is one of the more common bereavement symptoms.
When you’re grieving, your short-term memory is affected, and your cognitive responses slow. It may take a few years before regaining your full and normal mental capacity and will depend on how long grief lasts.
In the interim, you can expect to feel the effects of:
- Memory loss
- Inability to concentrate
What Can You Do If You’re Experiencing Memory Loss or Brain Fog While Grieving?
Some people try to cope with their grief and loss by pretending that things never happened. They bury their suffering so much so that they learn to develop avoidance strategies. This is not only unhealthy, but it prolongs the grief process making it more difficult to heal. You may find that these strategies hinder your ability to remember the things you need to do from day to day and any important dates coming up in the near term.
Memory loss or grief-related brain fog can happen when there is too much going on in your mind. You may find yourself deeply affected by your loss that your brain is always thinking about the person who died or the circumstances surrounding their death. It helps to organize your thoughts so that you declutter your mind. Some tips include the following:
Write things down
You should write things down to help you remember if you’ve become forgetful. You may feel silly at first having to write things down like “remember to turn off the sink faucet” or “turn off the lights when going to bed.”
These are, after all, things that are not only common sense, but that you’ve done countless times without much thought. They should be automatic and a part of your everyday routine.
Except that when you’re bereaved, all of these common-sense thoughts and reactions go out the window. You’ll need to continually remind yourself to do the essential things to get you through your day successfully.
Ask others to remind you
Ask those around you to nudge your memory a bit when needed. Explain to your friends and family what you’re going through so that they understand.
Most people don’t know that grief interferes with your memory and other cognitive functions. They may notice that there’s something off with you, but they may not be able to associate it as being a grief reaction.
Setting alarms and other audible reminders is a great way to keep yourself on track daily. Use whatever technology you have available to set dings, rings, and alarms throughout your day.
You can even use your oven or microwave timers to sound off when you need a jolt to spring into action.
Get in the habit of doing things routinely day in and day out so that you know what to expect and what comes next. It may sound a bit boring and mundane, but this systematic way of doing things works in keeping you from forgetting to do certain things every day.
Routines work great for simple things like:
- Remembering to brush your teeth and other daily hygiene habits
- Preparing and eating healthy and nutritious meals
- Getting fresh air and exercise each day
- Feeding your pet
- Taking your daily medications
Take immediate action
When trying to decide if you should do something now or save it for later, do it now. You’ll not only not forget to do it later, but you’ll free your mind to concentrate on other things.
When you’re always worried about forgetting to do something, do it while it’s fresh on your mind. You can mentally check it off your list and move on to more pressing things with a clear mind.
Do one thing at a time
Don’t try to multitask when you’re grieving. It’s already difficult enough to do the things that you know you have to do. When you try to do multiple things at once, you might get confused and overwhelmed. It helps to tackle one thing at a time until completion.
This method applies to even the most basic of routines, like folding the laundry. Take it step-by-step and one thing at a time. If things get complicated or overwhelming, take a deep breath, walk away for a bit, and come back to it one article of clothing at a time.
Get the details
As you’re dealing with your grief and bereavement, you’ll find that things seem more complicated than usual.
Someone might be trying to give you basic instructions on how to send a text message, for example, and your brain just won’t register it. Don’t be afraid to ask for every detail of getting things done and write things down if you need to.
Use sticky notes
Those little yellow sticky notes can save the day when you’re dealing with brain fog and post-loss memory lapses.
An excellent way to remind yourself to do things is to post a sticky note where you need to do something. Then, as an added measure, hand draw yourself a map of the interior of your house and place an “x” wherever it is that you posted up a note.
The plan will give you a quick reference of where to check at the beginning and at the end of the day for things you need to do upon waking and going to bed.
The more you have going on in your head, the more likely it is for you to feel lost and overwhelmed following a loss. Reduce the noise going on in your head by limiting the distractions around you. Things that can be distracting are noisy, blaring television sets and radios.
Focus on surrounding yourself with calming noises and even scents that help soothe you instead of making you anxious and jittery. If you live with others, find yourself a quiet place to retreat so that you can be alone with your thoughts. Take a journal along with you to jot things down as you remember them.
Use your technology
The use of technology can come in very handy as you go through your grief process and recovery. When you’re having trouble remembering things, don’t be afraid to ask people to email you and send you reminders.
You can also go into your phone, email, alarms, and other apps and gadgets to set up reminders for yourself on all of your portable devices. Sometimes it’s as easy as saying, “Siri, remind me to go to bed at 11 p.m.” You can trust her to do whatever you program her to do.
Talk to yourself to remind yourself
Have conversations with yourself to help you remember where you placed things or when you need to do something.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget where you put your keys, for example, when you walk in through the front door. Tell yourself, “I walked in the front door, and I’m placing my keys on the table next to the couch.” When you retrace your steps later, it’ll help that you’ve painted this picture to help you recall where you set your keys down upon entering the front door.
Go easy on yourself
Don’t expect yourself always to remember everything. It’s going to happen that you forget a lot of things throughout this grief process.
Cut yourself some slack and go easy on yourself when you can’t remember what you had to do or what you were about to do. The more pressure you place on yourself, the more stressful things are going to get for you. Your aim should be to take it easy, relax, and let grief take its course.
If you find it difficult to get on with your day-to-day routines because your suffering consumes you, try getting help through online therapy or counseling.
How Can You Help a Loved One Who’s Experiencing Grief and Memory Loss?
When your loved one's grieving, the memory loss they experience can make them feel like they're losing their mind. Not many people link memory loss to the natural and expected part of the grieving process. Widespread side effects might include losing your train of thought mid-sentence or forgetting what you were doing even as you're doing it, leaving you feeling lost and disoriented.
Forgetfulness, confusion, and the inability to focus are all normal grief responses. The following are ways to help someone who's experiencing grief-related memory loss get back on track.
Remind them of important dates
Technology to help remind us of upcoming appointments and special days on the calendar is widely available nowadays, making it easy to keep track of our daily lives. Sometimes all it takes is a few quick taps on a smartphone, and we instantly have a reminder set for a specific date and time. But a person experiencing grief may not remember how to use their phone's unique features available at their fingertips.
Instead of making your loved one feel bad for not remembering to use their electronic calendaring system, for example, help remind them of important dates as they come up.
Help them establish routines
Establishing a daily routine is extremely helpful to those who are suffering from grief. Most people who've suffered a significant loss tend to exist from day to day without giving much thought to the things they do or why they do them.
Many people run on autopilot until they exhaust themselves and never even understand how they've made it from one day to the next. When experiencing profound sadness, daily obligations can go by the wayside. You can help your loved one get back on track by helping them establish new routines to follow during the first few weeks of mourning.
Suggest they keep a journal
Journaling helps bereaved people memorialize their grief journey and help them keep track of what they do on an everyday basis. When someone is experiencing memory loss, it's not unusual for them to forget what they did yesterday or even a few hours ago.
Encourage your loved one to write down all the important events of the day so they can reference them whenever needed. You might suggest that they also keep track of what they've eaten and at what time, any vital information received that day, or if they had any special visitors stop in.
Encourage taking breaks
Feelings of overwhelm often lead to panic, which then leads to stress adding to a bereaved person's memory loss. Your loved one may feel that they need to make up for lost time as a result of suffering a significant setback and may want to do everything all at once.
Feeling stressed and anxious can contribute to feelings of disorientation and ultimately leading to panic. Encourage your loved one to take things slowly and do one thing at a time. Taking frequent breaks helps calm the mind and refocus the brain helping your loved one regain both their memory and dignity after embarrassing memory loss.
How Grief Causes Memory Loss
Grief tends to cause cognitive impairments and memory loss in many individuals who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. This consequence is usually related to the mind’s response to stressful events and as a way to protect you from additional harm. You can help regain some of this memory loss by facing your grief instead of ignoring it or trying to forget about what happened.
Slowly you’ll begin to feel like your old self again, and your memory will start to come back. You may need a little nudge here and there, but your forgetfulness is usually not long-lived or permanent.
If you're looking for more grief resources, read our guides on feelings of grief and guilt and grief affirmations.