You are not going crazy. The thick fog of grief brain is real!
You might have heard of pregnancy brain or chemo brain, but have you ever heard of grief brain?
Many people don’t know that grief causes injury to the brain, especially companies with 3-5 day bereavement policies that expect you to be your productive, efficient self a week after your world has been shattered by death.
My mother died on the first day of my graduate school summer session.
It was about 4:00 am when I got the text message, and I was supposed to be on campus by 8:00 am. Luckily, I was given permission to skip the one-week session, mandatory for graduation.
For months after, I was an incoherent mess. I walked around in a fog of confusion and disorientation and could barely form intelligible sentences let alone write a 20-page research paper on Jungian archetypes as part of my Psychology Master’s Degree. I cannot even imagine what I would have done If I was still working at my consulting job with only a week off as per company bereavement policies.
The loss of a loved one is traumatic and the brain fog, absentmindedness, disorganization, forgetfulness, and impairment in overall cognition that comes with it is known as grief brain or “fuzzy cognition” in the grieving community.
Grief causes injury to the brain. For a time, your cognitive skills and abilities are placed on the back burner because the brain’s goal is survival. It prioritizes only what is important.
“I realized, for the time being, I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world." - Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
So what do you do when you show up at work and are expected to crush tight deadlines and be your pre-loss badass self when you can barely remember what a paper clip is called?
In this article, I share some strategies that can help you cope with grief brain in the short term when you don’t have the luxury of taking more time off work.
The grieving brain
“The problem isn’t sorrow; it’s a fog of confusion, disorientation, and delusions of magical thinking” – Lisa Schulman
Grief brain varies for different people, but here are some of the most salient symptoms:
- Disorientation & brain fog: You find that you are shrouded in a blanket of confusion, and hours or even days go by without you accomplishing any tasks you set out to do.
- Disorganization: You miss due dates on bills, and cannot hit work deadlines even though you used to be at the top of your game in the past.
- Lack of Concentration: You find yourself reading the same line for the umpteenth time, or just staring off into space.
- Reduced Cognitive Abilities: Completing simple tasks have become overwhelming and the efficient you who could juggle multiple spreadsheets, made sales pitches, or love reading books before your loved one's death has disappeared.
- Forgetfulness / Memory Loss: You forget about scheduled meetings, and conversations you had. you also forget the names of common items, people, and even where the ear pods you put in your ears a minute ago are.
Please note that all of this is normal, especially in the early days, weeks, and months of grief. This is happening because your brain is actively in emergency mode. As a result, it powers down your prefrontal cortex which is in charge of higher functioning like planning, attention, organization, and cognition, while your limbic system in charge of managing stress and ensuring survival takes the driver’s seat.
Work Ritual to help you cope in the short-term
Unfortunately, there is no miracle drug that someone can give you to restore your ability to function when you are grieving. As with any injury, your injured brain will need time to heal and rehabilitate.
From my experience, I found that when the world feels out of control, rituals can act as your personal response and recovery team and support you in your day-to-day life. Use this work ritual to help you embrace and cope with the changes happening in your brain as you find your new normal.
Flow and Focus - Work ritual
You made it to the office and the workday is yawning open in front of you. You can further help your brain get into the zone by creating a daily pre-work ritual. For example, before I start writing every day, I set my timer on my productivity app, close all open windows on my computer except the one I want to use, and put on a playlist.
Remember that your pre-work ritual does not have to be formal, it is just a way of signaling to your brain that it is time to work. Here is an example;
- Put your phone into “Do Not Disturb” mode
- Clear your desk of any items that may distract you
- Put on headphones and listen to focus music
- Use the Pomodoro method to work on your priorities for the day
The Pomodoro method
The Pomodoro method is a time management method that is especially useful with grief brain given the short attention span you tend to have an inability to focus.
It works by alternating “Pomodoro’s” which are just focused timed work sessions with frequent breaks. When I use this method, I realized that I have experienced sustained concentration, and mental burnout takes a lot longer to find me.
Here are some tips on how to use this method.
Step 1: Plan your work
- Take 15 minutes at the beginning of your workday to make a list of your priorities for the day and note how many Pomodoro’s it will take to complete them.
- Group smaller tasks like checking emails, into a single Pomodoro and break any tasks that take more than 4 Pomodoros into smaller tasks.
- Make sure that you are not overscheduling your day. For example, if you work 6 hours a day, ensure you don’t have more than 12 Pomodoro’s.
- Break up your work periods into 25–30-minute Pomodoro’s depending on how many hours you need to work.
Step 2: Set Up
- On the app, you are using, create your tasks and the number of Pomodoro’s needed to complete each activity.
- Schedule 5-minute breaks between each Pomodoro session and after 4 sessions, schedule a longer 15 to 30-minute break.
- Researchers have long claimed that music can help people perform tasks more efficiently, get into flow states, and enhance cognitive functioning and concentration. Try one of these 6 different types of music which are known to dramatically improve productivity as you work.
Step 3: Work
- Put on your headphones and start your playlist.
- Start your timer for the 25 to 30-minute work period and ignore any messages or distractions. When your timer rings at the end, take your short break.
- During your short breaks, perform 3-minutes of box breathing to rejuvenate yourself and focus your mind. Note that you can also practice this breathwork throughout your day when you need to center yourself.
- Inhale through the nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 4
After 4 Pomodoro’s, take your long break. During this time, you can get some coffee, walk around, check social media, or grab some snacks.
Note the following:
- You don’t have to use this method exactly as instructed. Choose intervals that support you. For example, I tend to do 30-minute Pomodoro’s and instead of the15 -30-minute long breaks, what works for me is a 1- 2-hour break between every 4 Pomodoro’s.
- Most people can accomplish 2 cycles, but depending on your schedule you might be able to do 3 or even 4 cycles.
- I use the Focus To-Do App, but you can try some of the other productivity apps suggested below under symptom management.
An example of my work ritual. You can modify it based on your work schedule and how much interaction you need to have with people through meetings and other engagements.
Tips & Tools to manage grief brain symptoms
You will still need to manage your daily life outside of work and in addition to daily self-care and emotional regulation practices like grounding, self-soothing, and distraction activities, here are some tips and tools to help you manage grief brain symptoms until things come back to normal.
Forgetfulness & disorganization
- Note pads and any note-taking apps like Evernote or your phone note-taking app could be a lifesaver.
- Plan tasks, make to-do lists, and use memory tools such as calendars and alarms.
- Designate an area in your living space where you will keep your wallet, keys, and other items you use frequently.
Productivity apps, reminders, and alarms can help you get more organized. Here are a few that I recommend.
To-Do Apps & Reminders: To help you organize your work and life and become more focused and calmer.
Lack of Concentration & Focus
- Use the Pomodoro method discussed above to help you focus and pander to a short attention span.
Use crossword puzzles, card games, memory matching games, sudoku, and word games to strengthen your cognitive skills as well as relax during your time away from work.
Use brain and memory training apps like the ones below:
- CogniFit: This app can help you improve cognitive abilities with interactive games designed by neuroscientists to target memory and concentration.
- Peak: Games that test your Focus, Memory, Problem Solving, Mental Agility, and more.
- Clockwork Brain Training: Memory and attention game specifically created to test cognitive skills.
- Lumosity: Fun games to strengthen memory, improve attention, problem-solving, processing speed, and mental flexibility.
Healing the injured brain
“If we don’t work through the traumatic experiences that we have, they will continue to be an obstacle in our lives.” - Lisa Shulman
The work ritual above is meant to help you cope in the short term while your brain heals. Grief can reinforce brain wiring that effectively locks the brain into a permanent stress response, so it is important that when you feel more stabilized and your prefrontal cortex is back in the driver’s seat, you take some time out from work and your daily responsibilities regularly to process your grief using some of the different outlets below.
- Crying sessions
- Personal rituals
- Mourning rituals
- Creative outlets like poetry, painting, doodling, collage
- Grief support groups and grief therapy
Please remember that grief is a universal experience that our brains have evolved over millennia of collective loss to manage. Grief brain is one of those sophisticated strategies to help us survive the trauma of loss and eventually heal.
Be patient and gentle with yourself and remember that these cognitive changes are short-term and are part of the natural grieving process. As you spend more time tending to your sorrow and grief, you will find your cognitive abilities coming back online sometimes even sharper than before.
Take baby steps.
Your brain is healing.