foggy street

Grief is…Brain Fog

October 30, 20236 min read

Grief is…Brain Fog

An empty highway at night with low lying fog

One of the symptoms of grief that no one warned me of, and I hadn’t experienced before, is brain fog. In the early days, the brain fog was almost complete for me. Your brain is working so hard to understand and make sense of what has happened that brain fog sets in. It is a natural response to the emotional overwhelm, sleep disturbance and stress that comes with grief.

It’s important to talk about brain fog because if you don’t know it might be coming, it feels like you are losing your mind and there is something wrong with you. It can impact everything in your life for much longer than you think. It feels like your mental capacity to think, reason, remember and process information are diminished and just plain foggy. I read recently that brain fog in grief can last up to five years. That was encouraging and frustrating to me at the two-and-a-half-year mark. I still experience brain fog in some areas and feel it lifting in others.

One of the early experiences with brain fog impacting my ability to do something was trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich. A task that had been routine and required little thought or effort became almost impossible. If you break it down, there are many steps to making a grilled cheese sandwich. The first time we tried it took 45 minutes. None of the steps felt routine or ingrained and each took effort and thought - getting each ingredient, assembling the sandwich, finding the frying pan, turning on the stove, cooking it. What would normally take 10 minutes took 45. That’s the result of brain fog.

The other spot it showed up for me in the early days was in day-to-day things that were routine, like having a shower, that now required thinking and breaking down into conscious steps. You likely have a way you shower that is the same every time. You likely are partly asleep and not thinking about what you are doing as you go through your morning routine. That’s part of why we have great ideas in the shower. Our brains aren’t busy thinking about what we are doing so they can do amazing creative problem solving. In acute and early grief much of that routine unconscious activity is no longer routine or unconscious.

Brian fog still shows up for me in many other ways:

·      I can make a grilled cheese now with little effort but still find it hard to cook real meals for myself.

·      I struggle with comprehension and retention when reading nonfiction or more complicated fiction.

·      I use the GPS almost all the time to drive around a city I’ve lived in for over 45 years.

·      Multi step tasks can trip me up. Remembering when anything is scheduled is impossible.

There are work arounds and ways to help with all of these and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to use them.

If you are a griever, know what you are feeling is normal. It will lift over time. You can use the tools and technology to function as normally as possible. You can release any guilt or distress you may be feeling about how you are operating at diminished capacity. You can ignore anyone who is telling you to get over it.

If you are supporting a griever you care about, it’s good to understand that they are not operating as they used to. They may need your support to remember things like appointments or when you have planned to get together. You can ask if there is anything specific they find hard and how you can help with it. You can just listen and let them share their experience and frustration. You can help to normalize what they are going through.

If you are a business or community leader, you should be aware there are grievers at your workplace or site of action. Some will have shared what has happened to them and some won’t. It’s important to note there is a range of how grief will show up at work. Some grievers will need to mourn at work and some will use work as a respite from the emotions of grief and don’t want to acknowledge their loss at work. Most will fall along that range.

There are some specific things you can do so that grievers can be successful at work. Most of them will support all your staff to be successful. All should only be implemented in consultation with the person who is grieving and be reviewed after an agreed upon period. Grief impacts people for longer than we think AND we can be valuable assets while we grieve.

Here are some suggestions:

·      Flexible work hours.

o   Our relationship with time changes in grief and things take much longer than we expect. If you can have flexibility around the griever’s start time, that can be very helpful.

·      Documentation of expectations

o   Retention of information is impacted by brain fog. Having things written down can help.

·      Calendar of timelines and deadlines

o   It can be hard to keep track of things and time moves both quickly and slowly. Having a shared calendar with key deliverables and deadlines is helpful.

·      Work from home or hybrid work model

o   Many grievers would appreciate the option to work at home some days. If there are tasks that are done independently working from home can be helpful.

·      Change your client facing greetings

o   “How are you?” as a transactional greeting is very difficult for grievers. When we are asked that by strangers it makes that business uncomfortable and hard to navigate. We are in a transactional relationship. “Did you find what you were looking for?” is an appropriate transactional greeting.

·      Be aware of language that is related to death

o   Watch for sayings like “I’m drowning”, “I just about died” or “It almost killed me” when describing anything but a (near)death. For someone experiencing grief these can all be activating.

If you have a sick leave policy, you should have a grief policy. You could brainstorm and create the protocols with your team and share them widely so that people know they exist. It is much easier to ask for support when you know policies and protocols exist to support you and you just need to access them.

Normalizing grief, through team conversations and conversations with friends and family, helps because life brings losses big and small to all of us. Each loss brings emotions we need to acknowledge and can impact our performance at work. The structures that help someone experiencing loss can help everyone.

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Through her insightful teachings and thoughtfully designed programs, Suzanne offers a path guided by emotional intelligence and real life experience to address the full spectrum of the complex emotions and consequences of grief while expanding the capacity to engage fully with life post loss. Her heartfelt approach also honours the depth of loss through the invaluable practice of cherishing and expressing love for what has been lost and experienced.

Bonnie Lynn

Business Owner/Consultant

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In a recent peer meeting, I shared the statistics you provided regarding the number of co-workers that are dealing with grief at any given time. We committed to not only acknowledging the grief but also to providing sustained support.

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