“Reclaiming My Brain!” by Sheryl Gehrls

Principle #3: “Widow Fog” is a real brain chemistry condition that keeps me from thinking clearly. It robs me of my ability to function, and causes me to feel hopeless, helpless, and unable to make decisions. Amid this indecision, I choose to seek wisdom from appropriate family and/or mentors to guide me. Each successful decision builds my self-confidence to believe I can manage successfully on my own.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” – James 1:5

Have you found yourself putting the salt in the refrigerator, or the laundry detergent in the microwave, or your mail in the freezer? Have you put your coffee mug in the microwave to warm it up and found it two days later? Or maybe you went to the grocery store and found yourself standing in the dairy department without a clue as to why you made the trip? Have you completely forgotten to pay bills – or paid them twice? Do you get lost driving to familiar places? Or do you arrive somewhere and completely not remember how you got there?

Feeling like your rationally functioning brain has taken a vacation is a very normal part of grief. I wish someone would have told me that ahead of time! I found I could sit on the couch and think of absolutely nothing for hours! And when it came to making decisions, my brain shifted into neutral…all revved up and accomplishing nothing! I sometimes wondered where the competent, professional adult who had managed to raise a family and balance jobs and ministry along the way had gone. Suddenly I felt unprepared or unable to make even the simplest decisions that I would have taken for granted a few months previously.

As Principle #3 states, there is a very real brain condition known as “Widow Fog”. (Other losses can trigger what is known as “Grief Fog”, but we’re focusing on widows here!). Losing a spouse is one of the greatest stressors that we face in life. This particular grief affects your ability to function normally for a time but is actually a great protection for your emotions when loss could be overwhelming.

So, what might we expect symptoms of “widow fog” to look like?

  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling like you’re in a daze
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Feeling like you’re wandering aimlessly in circles
  • Inability to express your thoughts clearly
  • Small tasks feel overwhelming and may take much longer than normal
  • Headaches or body aches
  • Compromised immune system leading to more frequent illnesses
  • Constant fatigue or exhaustion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty making simple decisions
  • Fear or Anxiety

You may have any or all of the above symptoms as grief literally begins to rewire your brain. One way we can understand this is to see our brain as a computer hard drive automatically deleting “extra” files. When we are overloaded with the stress of grief and loss, this provides more internal resources to manage the grief. The brain is focusing on the feelings and symptoms of grief and has little capacity to do much else. Not to worry, though! During the grieving process, these symptoms begin to lessen, and normal thinking and decision-making ability should reappear.

Low levels of stress can be good for us, but prolonged grief that remains undealt with will push the brain into survival mode. The decision-making area of the brain becomes less active, and the fight-or-flight area takes over to ensure survival. The

It’s extremely important that you are gentle and patient with yourself during this time It is totally unreasonable to expect that you will function as competently as you did before you lost your spouse. Be sure to set realistic expectations for yourself and celebrate when you ARE able to accomplish something on that extensive To-do list! A notepad for jotting down things as they come to mind may become your new best friend!

By now, you may be asking yourself what things we can do to sharpen our thinking and regain our ability to focus and make decisions. There are some really practical things that can be helpful. Let’s take a quick look at a short list:

  • Practice self-care: eat, drink water, exercise, form a sleep routine.
  • Interrupt negative thought patterns. Dwell instead on your good memories!
  • Find support from others who can help you. It’s especially helpful to talk with others who have experienced some of the same things.
  • Spend time outside in nature. A long walk, sitting somewhere near trees and/or water can be very restorative to both mind and emotions.
  • Practice daily meditation, preferably on the Scriptures.
  • Journal about your feelings. Writing things out helps to get thoughts and emotions out where you can see them. Sometimes that helps to clarify what things are really true, and what things we’re telling ourselves that are impacting our thoughts and emotions.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome, or you can email me at sheryl@freshhope.us.


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Reclaiming My Brain!

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