Story of a Grief-Addled Brain

Studies have shown that grief can cause havoc in cognitive functioning, memory and concentration. I wanted to share a bit personally about this.

Here is the backdrop. I had been on a roller coaster. I was in a "seasonal mode," working 70 hour weeks in event production when Brian started complaining of back pain. I was already depleted when we began on a road that would lead to Brian's death. On that road, things intensified and I went for approximately 25 days without any significant sleep. Three days sleeping in a chair in the hospital and occasionally crawling into the twin-sized hospital bed to hold Brian. At home with hospice - 22 days of round-the-clock pressure to suss out his caregiving. To give you a picture, say - if each day I learned 5 new things about his caregiving, the next day... 3 of those things would be obsolete.

After he died my sleep was no better. I had a lot of excess adrenaline and had to use sleep aids to force myself to sleep. For about 2 years after (an never had I had this before), my body would do what is called an extreme hypnic jerk, hypnagogic jerk or night start. This was like having my whole body being electrocuted by an impulse when I had been lying in bed. 

There was the disruption of life, daily tasks, finances and new responsibilities. Things that were not my responsibility previously became urgent and mine to sort through. Most of my habits were disorganized or obliterated. There was the growing and worrisome realization that I could not afford to stay in our home without his income. There was the deep dive into taking apart his studio, his work materials, his equipment, his systems that I knew little to nothing about. There were all the people flowing in and out of our home, some old friends, some new friends, to help try and suss out what was wanted and needed, what had value, what could be sold.

And then, there was the deep, creeping grief that moved in as a permanent room-mate.

Here is the meat of what I would like to share.

I went out for a meal with one of our family friends to plan Brian's distribution of ashes. As we sat at the restaurant, I could sense that he was growing increasingly impatient with my inability to plan, forecast and organize this complex family trip to handle the ashes. There was lodging, transportation and food to plan.

I was inarticulate, my language seemed to have vanished. I was dumbfounded by my inability to plan - I had designed and run events for over 4,000 people in 160 acres, and I seemed to not be able to plan a trip for about 10 people coming from 4 geographic locations.

This friend became so frustrated with me, he said that he could no longer talk about the plans. And that I should contact him when I was ready to get going on the plans. Somehow my brain registered his frustration and yet I was swimming in so much brain fog that I could not move myself into worry for his cranky response. Then, he changed the subject. He asked me about some past event. Out of my mouth came full, articulate sentences that were nuanced and clever. I startled myself with the contrast. In that moment.

 Little did I know that this was a foreshadow of what was to come.

My language and cognition about anything past-tense would be crystal clear and full of language fluidity. My language and cognition about anything present or future tense involuntarily boiled down to one or two unclear words.

This went on for several months - say about 8 months.

In that time I also received numerous parking tickets, lost several of those parking tickets. Locked myself out of the car numerous times (thanks AAA) and missed appointments. I misplaced bills, forgot to return emails and correspondences. Missed meetings, was late to meetings, got lost. Lost keys and wallets, locked myself out of the house and... well you can imagine. It got better slowly over time. I am 9 years out now and I can say that I am about at 80% of my formal mental acumen. That should factor in aging in addition to grief.

I recall the first time I went to the grocery after he died I was in there for well over an hour because the sheer task of getting food was flooding me and I could barely process what was happening.

Why tell you all this?

Because it seems, I am not the only one that has this experience. People who have never been impacted by grief are likely not to understand how disordered our minds can become when we have lost a life partner that we are deeply bonded to. And I would like them to have a chance to understand this.

Without this awareness, they will want us to be the old, articulate person that we once were. We can be seen as a problem, slow, confused and out of control. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT THIS CAN BE NORMAL BECAUSE WE EXPERIENCED THE DEATH OF SOMEONE MUCH LOVED AND WE ARE DEEPLY BONDED TO OUR LOVED ONE. We did not abandon them, did not hide, did not ship them off to a professional service. We stayed and we met the task head on and kept them safe and ushered them home. 

While grief causes havoc in the brain, creates pain, problems and inconveniences - grief itself should not be treated in such a derogatory manner. The death event and all the things leading up to it and after it - culminates in a permanent and impactful earthquake to the person who is left behind. No one you know will really "get over" an important loss. They will just adapt to it, learn how to walk again - often with a slight, beautiful limp. Life was severely disrupted and never returned to it's previous state. 

And I would do it all over again, for such a love.

"... the night will break your heart, only if you're lucky now."



Kim Gosney