What is '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.

Is Widow Brain a Real Thing?

Widow brain is a genuine feeling of disorientation, forgetfulness, and mental fog accompanying grief. It impacts many individuals soon after suffering the death of their spouse. Brain fog often shields a grieving person from further pain and suffering. It can cause them to forget certain aspects of their life before and after the loss, creating confusion to detract from their grief.

The effects of widow brain can last for weeks, or even months, with its impact slowly waning the further out they get from the time of their loss. These physiological changes occur over time or are subtle and challenging to recognize when grieving. 

As the brain fog from grief begins to take a stronghold, it can make remembering things and making everyday decisions overwhelmingly painstaking and frustrating. Often, individuals suffering this type of loss may not recognize or identify the changes they're experiencing during the initial mourning stages. They attribute the effects of brain fog to going crazy with grief.

Most sufferers can't remember where they placed their keys or if they had anything to eat that day. These moments of forgetfulness can feel defeating when trying to cope with a spouse's death.

» MORE: Need help with funeral costs? Create a free online memorial to gather donations.

What’s Widow Brain?

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. 

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?

How to Cope with 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

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. 

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.

How Can You Help a Loved One Experiencing Widow Brain?

The death of a spouse is a life-altering experience that brings severe challenges to the surviving widow. They may feel helpless and confused in the beginning stages of grief and can benefit from added guidance and support. But where do you start if you've never gone through this experience yourself? 

Finding ways to help a loved one experiencing brain fog from grief can feel intimidating. There are several ways to impact your loved one's life as they learn to accept their loss and process their grief. The following tips are practical ways for you to help someone you love who can't think straight because of a significant loss. 

Take over their monthly bills

Soon after losing a spouse, the grief experience takes hold of a person's rational thought process. It can send them into periods of deep despair where nothing else matters other than how they feel. A loved one suffering intense pain will likely fall into this pattern of disregard for everything in their lives for a few weeks or months following the death of their spouse. You can help them regain financial footing by keeping track of their income and household expenses, filling out life insurance paperwork, and notifying their spouse's employer. 

The widowed spouse will likely need help figuring out their financial status beyond the initial few weeks after their loss. However, in the meantime, you can help avert disaster by ensuring their monthly bills and other financial obligations are paid on time.

Arrange for childcare

A grieving widow parenting young children will need time to themselves to sort out their pain and grief. It's not unusual for widowed spouses to disregard their children's suffering, and brain fog may result in your loved one ignoring the children and failing to acknowledge their grief. 

Many widowed spouses suffer from scattered feelings and emotions that may interfere with their ability to offer grief support to their children. This effect of suffering is nothing to feel ashamed of, as it happens to so many. You can contribute to looking after the children for a few days in their home, or yours, whichever the children are most comfortable staying in. 

Remember that the surrounding change may feel jarring to young children suffering from a significant loss. These changes may lead them to feel additional stress and complications in their grief. 

Help with chores 

Sometimes lending a hand with the necessities is the most significant help you can offer someone dealing with widow brain. The mundane, everyday chores become less and less critical as the gravity of a widow's loss begins to take shape. 

Keeping the house tidy and the laundry washed and folded is seldom on any grieving person's list of must-dos. Offering household support when it's apparent that your loved one needs it is a thoughtful way of acknowledging what they're going through without being too intrusive in their mourning process. When taking over the chores, it's best to jump in without seeking permission, as you'll always come up against resistance. 

» MORE: Honor a loved one with an online memorial. Create one for free with Cake.

What Resources Are Available for People Experiencing Widow Brain?

Grieving the death of a spouse never goes away entirely, but eventually, that grief starts lifting, and widowed individuals start regaining the mental clarity lost in the beginning. When assessing a loss, it’s essential to consider the cognitive impairments associated with grief that might affect the survivor. 

Coping with the loss of a spouse is one of life’s most significant challenges, and a widow will need time to overcome the mental brain fog accompanying considerable loss. The following bereavement support resources might help individually or when incorporated as part of comprehensive grief counseling or another care plan. 

Bereavement counseling

Grief is known to rewire a survivor's brain regardless of the type of loss suffered. When you factor in the death of a spouse, the brain mechanisms that contribute to rational thought processes are naturally temporarily disabled to protect the bereaved from further pain and sorrow. 

A person suffering from widow brain may need help adjusting to these changes and will likely benefit from receiving individual or group grief counseling or therapy to help them relearn new ways of thinking and processing their experiences post-loss. Several free community resources help individuals dealing with these grief-related changes. These include local hospice and hospital chaplaincy and bereavement services, places of worship, and public libraries, to name a few.

Community centers

Widowed individuals will eventually need added social support services from their friends and communities. This can help them adjust to the many challenging situations widows face. Those challenges may include relearning social skills and functions that the widow brain erased due to a traumatic and life-altering loss.

Community centers often offer bereavement support services and opportunities for socialization, learning, and volunteering. These activities are essential to a grieving widow's healing and regaining the capacity to think clearly after loss. Joining in on weekly activities helps reacclimate bereaved widows to their communities and allows them to exercise cognitive functions that might have been affected by their loss. 

Online courses 

Attending online classes or going through a pre-recorded series on helping bereaved individuals deal with a spouse's death can help gain focus and clarity. It can also improve other areas, such as enhancing post-loss attention span. These skills are imperative for a widowed person who now faces handling all their financial, household, and family responsibilities independently. Online courses can be an integral part of adjusting to life after loss and clearing the mind muddled by grief. 

Books and articles on grief

Learning about how grief affects an individual's emotions and psychology is also a great way to overcome the effects of widow brain. When people don't understand what's happening to them, they typically search for answers or labels to pin on their symptoms. Unfortunately, whenever bereaved individuals aren't familiar with grief brain, they may mistakenly assume they're suffering from other severe conditions such as memory loss associated with Alzheimer's.

These misdiagnoses often lead to further stress and anxiety, compounding the effects of grief. Reading books and articles online is a great way to ease at least some of those fears. 

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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