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What Does It Mean to Have ‘Widow Brain’ After a Spouse Dies?

The passing of a spouse is a traumatic and deeply emotional experience that has led to the creation of the term "widow brain." What does it mean?

Grief is a difficult emotion to process, and at times it can feel impossible to manage. There are several theories in psychology that attempt to explain how the human mind handles and heals from grief. One such theory centers around an idea called Widow Brain -- which is triggered by the loss of a spouse. 

Losing a partner is one of the hardest experiences you can ever go through, but know that there are ways to help ease your grief. The following guide will explain Widow Brain and point you towards resources that can assist you through this difficult time. Keep reading to learn more: 

What Is “Widow Brain”?

Widow Brain is a term used to describe the fogginess and disconnect that can set in after the death of a spouse. This feeling is thought to be a coping mechanism, where the brain attempts to shield itself from the pain of a significant trauma or loss. Widow’s Brain is also commonly referred to as Widow Fog or simply trauma brain. 

Widow Brain Symptoms

The loss of a loved one can trigger a significant response in the brain, typically resulting in unintended side effects. Many people who lose a spouse share that it does not feel real at first, and takes weeks or months to set in. This is just one example of the human brain attempting to protect itself from the potential stages of grief

Grief is most commonly explained using the Five Stages model, which was developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The stages used are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. If you have ever grieved the loss of a loved one, you know the process is much more complicated than that. 

The symptoms of Widow Brain can impact almost every aspect of daily life and are often difficult to control. Many people report experiencing: 

  • Forgetfulness

  • Extreme Sadness

  • Brain Fog

  • Irritability

  • Fatigue or Exhaustion

  • Numbness 

  • Nausea 

How Long Does Widow Brain Last? 

Widow Brain lasts anywhere from two months to a full year; however, there is no concrete timeline on how long the actual grief will last. Instead, people typically report the symptoms of Widow Brain improving in this time with the sense of loss remaining. For example, over the course of a few months you will likely find your short-term memory return to normal but that does not necessarily mean the healing process is over. 

There are also certain events that can trigger Widow Brain symptoms to return, even if they have started to fade. Many people struggle with the first round of holidays after the loss of a loved one. It can also be difficult to experience birthdays and anniversaries. Remember that healing is not always linear, and the symptoms of Widow Brain may come and go. 

How to Help Manage Widow Brain

Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to process. Many people want to rush through it or block it out all together -- but it is important to work through it in your own time. If you are experiencing the symptoms of Widow Brain following a loss, there are some ways to help manage: 

  1. Lean on friends and family: After the loss of a spouse, your family and friends will offer condolences and support. Don’t be afraid to lean into them for this help. One of the most frustrating aspects of Widow Brain can be the sense of forgetfulness or fog. Family and friends might be able to take some of your responsibilities off your plate during this time -- giving you more space to focus on healing.

  2. Ask for help:  No one will ever know exactly what you experience after losing a spouse, but there are others who may be able to relate. Seek out a widow support group or counselling service with experience in grief. These resources can help you learn which tools have helped others and allow you to better manage the symptoms you are experiencing.

  3. Allow the grief to run its course: Unfortunately, there is not an on and off switch for grief. Be gentle with yourself as you encounter the symptoms of Widow Brain. Forgetfulness, fatigue, depression, etc. will likely come and go -- even as you take steps towards healing. Let the grief you feel run its course as you learn to manage it.

  4. Don’t rush your healing process: Widow Brain will look different for everyone, though there is one commonality reported by those who experience it: you cannot rush the healing process. Your brain and body need time to recover from the shock and pain of losing a loved one. Try not to be frustrated with yourself as you process these emotions. 

Resources for Healing from the Death of a Spouse 

Healing from the death of a spouse takes time, but there are resources that can help you work through it. If you have recently lost a loved one or are supporting someone through a loss, here are some resources you can turn to: 

  • Set up an appointment with a therapist or grief counsellor 

  • Look for support groups using the Grief Resource Network

  • Consider organizing a memorial service 

  • Join grief support groups on Facebook or other online platforms

  • Pick up a book about coping with loss

  • Resume activities you used to enjoy, such as running or going to the movies

  • Visit your doctor to keep up with your health

The loss of a spouse is life-altering, and it can be even more difficult if the loss was unexpected. You will be forced to change your day-to-day habits and take over responsibilities you are used to sharing. There is nothing that can prepare you for this -- but there are ways to reduce the impact. By creating an Estate Plan as a couple you can designate finances, funeral plans, and legal responsibilities for the future. This process can protect you or your spouse from handling these matters alone after loss. 

There is another common theory about grief, developed by Dr. Lois Tonkin, that suggests healing takes place around an initial loss -- rather than by shrinking or moving on from it. According to this process, called “growing around grief”, those who experience loss heal by creating new moments of enjoyment after the loss, allowing them to feel whole again despite the grief. The symptoms of Widow Brain will fade over time, but the grief will remain in a way that is easier to manage and move forward with. Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!