What Does It Mean to Have ‘Widow Brain’ After a Spouse Dies?


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Grief is your mind and body’s reaction to loss. The pain and sorrow experienced after the death of your spouse can leave you with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and despair.

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Your overall response to this storm of emotions can be to protect you from experiencing more pain than what you can bear. As is typical with any significant trauma, your brain has a built-in coping mechanism known as “widow brain” after suffering the loss of your spouse. 

Tip: If you need more than a support group, you might consider online therapy or counseling. We reviewed the most popular services, like BetterHelp and Talkspace, in our best online therapy or counseling guide.

What’s Widow Brain?

Widow brain is a stage after your spouse dies in which you’ll likely feel as if you can no longer think straight. You might even begin to feel as if you’re losing your mind. When you suffer such a significant loss, your mental capacity is affected in the first few months following the death.

Feelings of numbness and being unable to process information will overtake you. You can expect these symptoms to last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. There are at least three different known components related to the suffering of widow brain.

They are commonly described as:

Emotional. Expect that you’re going to have a tough time dealing with the loss of your spouse at some point after the realization that they’re no longer with you sets in. Your brain and body’s coping mechanisms might have shielded you from the initial emotional trauma associated with the loss, but in time, the reality of your loss will set in.

When this happens, you might have emotional outbursts of anger and crying intermixed with deep sorrow. If you experience this component of widow brain, understand that it’s one of the types of grief you should expect as you mourn your loss. 

Neurological. The neurological aspect of widow brain is when you can’t make sense of what’s going on inside your head. You’ll find that you’ve suddenly become forgetful, you can’t seem to figure out even the simplest of things, and that you can’t remember basic everyday functions like how to turn on the faucet or start the washing machine.

You’ll likely suffer from short-term memory loss which you can expect to improve within a few months. This cognitive decline is also a normal part of grief. 

Physical. When you’re suffering the loss of your spouse, you might feel so emotionally drained and unable to function at the same physical levels as before.

The amount of energy that it takes for you to overcome the emotional and neurological effects of widow brain may leave you too exhausted to do any physical activity. You might find that you just want to sit on the couch all day and do absolutely nothing. You’ll feel incapable of starting or finishing basic tasks like eating, bathing, or dressing. You’ll begin to recuperate your lost energy when your grief begins to lift. 

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How Long Does Widow Brain Last?

You can expect to feel the effects of widow brain anywhere from 12-18 months from the time of your loss. In some cases, you’ll find that after the first 2-3 months you’ll start to slowly come out of it, and at six months you’re functioning at almost normal capacity. 

Although you might start to feel better and begin recapturing some of your lost faculties, there may be certain triggers like your husband’s death anniversary that might lead to a relapse.  It helps when you accept these setbacks as part of the grieving process and work through them until you begin to feel better again.

What Can You Do to Curb Widow Brain?

You might not be able to avoid widow brain altogether, but there are ways that you can effectively curb its effects. Some of those ways are basic and won’t require you to put in a lot of effort. Others will require that you go out of your comfort zone and ask for assistance with tasks that you might be having a hard time doing on your own. 

1. Write things down

One of the simplest and most effective ways to curtail the negative effects of widow brain and lessen your frustration is to write things down. Make it a habit to have a notebook or journal on hand so that you can write things down as you remember them. 

You might think to dismiss this bit of advice because it seems too simple and unnecessary, but as your brain becomes foggier during your time of grief, you’ll appreciate the gentle reminder of where you placed your keys or that you should bathe ever so often.

Here are some things to consider writing down:

  • A list of your bills and when they’re due
  • The day of the week that trash gets collected
  • Where you keep your important papers
  • How often you’ve walked and fed the dog every day
  • Your mealtimes and bedtime

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2. Ask for help

Nothing is harder to accept for a person who has been independent for years than realizing they can’t do everything by themselves and needing help. Reaching out to others for help will take care of two of your immediate needs — your need to get things done, and ensuring that you aren’t isolating yourself from others.

Asking for help when you need it is just a phone call away. It may be awkward having to ask for help with things that you feel you shouldn't need help with but do it anyway. Explain to your loved ones that you're going through a rough patch, and that it's a difficult time for you right now.

You might need help with basic things such as:

  • Shopping for groceries
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Washing your clothes and linens
  • Cooking for the week
  • Taking care of your pet
  • Paying your bills
  • Fueling up the car

The list is endless. There are many ways in which someone can lend you a helping hand during this time of need. It’s okay to allow someone else to take the lead in figuring out what’s needed to be done around the house while you’re recovering from your loss. 

Consider joining an online widow support group for added comfort and companionship as you navigate your grief. 

3. Allow grief to take its course

When you allow the process of grief to take its course without trying to suppress it, you’ll find that things get easier to manage as time goes on. Your grief and sorrow will gradually lift, and you'll start to feel better. By then, your thought process will be returning to normal, and things will be less frustrating for you.

It may take several months for you to realize the true effects of your loss. In the meantime, you may feel the frustrations of having your brain in a fog and not being able to think clearly. When this happens, consider postponing any major life decisions in the first one to two years after your spouse’s death. 

Some decisions can wait such as figuring out what to do with your wedding ring and whether you should move to a new house. All of these things will fall into place as time goes on. There's no need to have immediate answers for every challenge that presents itself.

4.  Accept 

One of the misconceptions in accepting the cloudiness that’s going on in your head is that you’ve succumbed to your grief and have rendered yourself helpless. This can be difficult for you especially if you’re used to being independent and doing things on your own.

Acceptance does not equal defeat. When you accept that you can’t think clearly right now and that you may need help until you start to feel better, it’s a sign that you’re aware of your grief and what’s taking place inside of you.

You can help yourself in ways that promote good mental health by taking yourself for walks around the block, getting ample daily exercise, and listening to music. All these things will help get your mind in gear so that you can overcome widow brain more quickly and bring joy and happiness back into your life. 

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5. Remain present

Ways in which you can remain present to help you overcome the effects of widow brain are to:

Practice yoga. Yoga is the union between mind, body, and spirit. There’s a spiritual component that can attach to your yoga practice to help keep you grounded in the present. Focusing on your every breath and movement also helps center your thought process so that your mind remains calm.

Meditate. Mediation brings mental awareness, helps create calm, and reduces anxiety.

Clearing the Mental Fog 

Forging a new path is never easy especially after suffering the loss of your spouse. Your identity has changed, your friends are likely to change, and perhaps even where you live will change. 

Give yourself plenty of time to process your grief before forcing the creation of an entirely new life for yourself. 

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