I’ve learned a lot in the last few months. How to tend the coal heater, how to cut firewood, how to be a single parent, how to manage all finances, how to keep it together on the outside when I’m shredded on the inside.
I’m not saying I’m particularly good at these things, but I’m learning and hopefully getting better at them. But the one thing I learned that surprised me and I’m not getting better at is that the loss of someone like that and the grieving process basically causes brain damage.
I’ve been really frustrated lately because no matter how organized I try, no matter how many lists I make myself, no matter how much I plan, I just can’t keep up with things.
I’m a person who has always benefited from multitasking and trying to pack as much into one day as possible. That’s one of the reasons Steve and I had such a successful marriage. Both of our brains were just always on.
It always struck me as odd that neither of us was content with just having one job. In addition to our full-time jobs, each of us constantly had one or more side jobs, not to mention the full-time job of parenthood and housekeeping.
One of the things I liked most about my “real” job was how complicated it was and how I had to multitask just to keep up with things. I liked that I could leave work with a problem in mind and work on it in my brain while taking care of the kids or cooking dinner.
One of the things I loved about this column is that I was always mulling over a topic for the next week or dictating some other idea in my head. I was hoping that going back to work and this routine might help kickstart my brain and make it feel normal again. Instead, I wasn’t able to return to my previous level of functioning, and that has now added another layer of frustration.
I was hoping that working with the dogs and learning a new skill would help me get out of the blah blah blah. To an extent yes, but I seem to get stuck on the same few simple exercises I started with and I struggle to consistently discipline and reward them. If even the dogs start looking at you with concern, that’s a clear sign that something is wrong.
During therapy, terms like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain event were thrown around and I was hesitant to believe them because I don’t know, they just seemed bigger and more serious than what I thought was the overwhelming sadness and emptiness I was feeling.
So many people have been through this, and while every journey is different, I was sure someone out there had to have an answer that would help me aside from asking my therapist how to take care of myself or any questions from friends when I’m “well”. Thanks to the internet, I finally stumbled across the term “widow fog.”
I am a scientist by training and it is in my nature to want to understand things from within. If I can explain something, I can understand it, and if I can understand something that’s broken, I can start figuring out how to fix it.
Long story and lots of jargon later, the short answer has to do with your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is basically your brain’s control center. According to The Widow’s Foundation website, “It is your prefrontal cortex’s job to carry out rational thinking.” The website goes on to explain that the PFC is extremely limited in capacity and can only be used successfully a few times a day. That’s one of the reasons why it can be a good idea to “sleep through” a big decision, or why you seem more awake in the morning and less so throughout the day.
Any event associated with strong emotions will overload the PFC. An event like the tragic, unexpected loss of a spouse basically happens over and over again, affecting every aspect of your life, resulting in the PFC working overtime non-stop. Eventually this will cause the PFC to crash and burn.
When I read this explanation (the full version on the website goes much deeper than my summary) enough of my PFC was operational to light a small lightbulb. I also realized that since I had already coached my PFC to work overtime prior to this event, with my many activities and jobs, it was quite primed for an epic meltdown, which is basically what I’m in right now.
I like things to have names and explanations. It lets me know other people out there have been through the same thing. And most importantly, they survived enough to tell their story.
I hope you never have to experience the “widow (or widower) fog” or any other fog. I find it interesting that of all the possible losing combinations that could create that feeling, the widow was targeted. But if you do, it might also help you to know that this is a thing and that it’s supposed to pass.
Liz Pinkey is a Times News writer.