Grief Brain: Six Years and Counting

When I first became aware that Grief Brain was a real thing, it was a blessed relief!

I had long known that physical, mental or emotional stress could alter thinking and make it hard to remember things but I had never experienced such inability to hold even the most basic information in my head or found it nearly impossible to complete simple daily tasks.

It was truly frightening.

And it made life extremely hard.

I think the really, truly awful period of confusion, memory loss and difficulty lasted a good couple of years-not every day as bad as the next or the one before-but it was fairly consistent. I had to use lists, alarms and strict habits (like where I put my keys, the route I took somewhere, etc.) to make it through.

Now, six years later, it’s not nearly as bad.

That’s partly because I’ve become so good at relying on aids and helps like alarms and calendars and partly because I’ve gotten better at keeping the constant hum of loss compartmentalized in my brain so I can actually think of something else.

But if there is any added stress in the system I regress.

I forget words, names, places, why I’ve walked into a room, where I’m going, what I’m doing and (much to my horror) food in the oven or on the stove.

So if you are in the early days of loss and wonder, wonder, wonder if you are losing your mind, odds are-you aren’t.

It’s just Grief Brain.

It WILL get better.

In the meantime, use whatever helps you do what you have to do.

And be kind to yourself.

Grief’s Physical Toll

I don’t know about you but my face and my body tell the tale.

It’s a story of stress and strife and it’s not pretty.

I look at photos before and after and see grief written all over the pictures taken since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

There’s an old saying in the South when you see someone who looks exhausted and unwell: “She’s been rode hard and put up wet.” My horse loving friends will get it right away.

For the rest of you this is what it means: When a horse is ridden hard or worked long, it sweats. The kind and appropriate thing to do is to walk the animal until it dries off and then stable it. Doing so means the horse’s muscles have time to recover from the exertion and helps prevent injury or lameness. If a horse is repeatedly “rode hard and put up wet” it begins to show in her performance, resilience and ultimately, in longevity.

Living with child loss is definitely a hard slog through difficult terrain.

While my burden is not nearly as hard to carry TODAY as it was in the beginning (six years ago) it still adds significant resistance and requires more effort when doing everyday tasks or facing new challenges.

And I rarely have the ability or capacity to treat myself to a “cool down” period because my to do list is long and the days seem short. Life just doesn’t let up.

It has taken a physical toll.

I tire more easily-physically, emotionally and mentally. I am less resistant to illness. My chronic disease has progressed more in these six years despite aggressive treatment than the decade previous to Dom’s leaving. I don’t handle change well. I am more prone to call it quits, give up and give in when things get tough instead of powering through. I have a drastically shortened attention span. It’s hard to remember details and words-I write things down so I won’t forget. The lines in my face have deepened and multiplied. Sometimes getting out of bed is the bravest thing I do all day.

I could list at least a dozen more ways grief impacts my body but you get the idea.

Dealing With Physical Grief Symptoms Whats your Grief

Grief isn’t *just* an emotional response to loss.

It’s physical too.

So if you are noticing your body doesn’t act like it used to, you’re not alone.

Bereaved Parents Month 2020: Physical Manifestations of Grief

Grief is not *just* feelings. It is so much more.

I shared this last year around this time in response to many, many comments and questions from bereaved parents about what felt like random or unusual physical manifestations of their own grief.

I hope it helps another heart navigate this life none of us would choose.

It’s a well known fact that stress plays a role in many health conditions.  

And I think most of us would agree that child loss is one of (if not THE) most stressful events a heart might endure.  

So it’s unsurprising that bereaved parents find themselves battling a variety of physical problems in the wake of burying a child.  

Read the rest here: Bereaved Parents Month Post: Physical Manifestations of Grief

Go Ahead-Yell, Scream and Throw Things!

A mom who is also coming up on her season of sorrow this spring wrote that she felt like screaming and throwing things.

I get it.

And because I live in the middle of the woods, far from neighbors or nosy passers-by, I’ve done it.

Sometimes I walk in the woods and just holler out my questions, my pain, my indignation that this is my life.

Image result for yelling images

Other times I cry as loud as I want to, not trying to hold in the sobs.

When I’m really angry that it will soon be six years since Dominic has crossed the threshold of home, I take old eggs and toss them at trees. I work myself to a frazzle stacking sticks to burn. I use my clippers and chop away at underbrush, releasing pent up feelings with every satisfying snap of a twig.

Image result for throwing eggs image

The longer it is since his leaving, the more I feel I need to have it together in public. Others have long moved on and my tears are inexplicable to those who have forgotten.

And while I have gotten stronger and better able to carry this load called “child loss” this time of year makes it all fresh again.

The pressure builds with no place to go.

It’s going to force its way through the weakest part of my character if I don’t release it on purpose.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is angry.png

So I do.

If you need me, I’ll be outside for the next few weeks.

If you hear something, don’t worry.

I’m just letting off steam.

Grieving Differently: Growing Apart or Growing Stronger?

It’s no secret that men and women are different.

It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies to hundreds of books.

“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and all that.

So it shouldn’t surprise those of us walking this Valley that our spouse may be grieving very differently than we do. But it often does. Because everything is amplified when it echoes off the high mountains on either side.

And just when we need it most-for ourselves and for extending to others-grace is often in short supply.

So differences become offenses and offenses stack like bricks to build a wall between us and the one person as intimately connected to our missing child as we are.

Image result for image brick wall

Instead of holding each other up, we sometimes tear each other down. Instead of leaning in, we pull away. Instead of talking, we tune out.

Instead of crying together, we cry alone.

Even when we open up and try to address these differences it often ends in disagreement or is met with silence.

That’s discouraging.

I firmly believe that grief doesn’t really change the fundamentals in a relationship but it magnifies them. We all have cracks in our marriages. Two imperfect people do not make a perfect couple regardless of how lovely the photos might be.

Child loss makes the cracks more evident. What might be ignored otherwise, becomes unavoidable. Add gender differences to the load of grief and it’s no wonder many of us struggle.

So how can a marriage survive?

Here are a few pointers:

  • Admit that you and your spouse are different people. Your life experiences, gender and personality affect how each of you grieve. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
  • Purpose to assume the best and not the worst of your spouse. When he or she makes a comment or shoots you a “look” don’t immediately ascribe dark motives. It may be she’s having an especially bad day or he is tired or distracted.
  • Look for common ground. When you are both in a neutral environment and rested, ask your spouse what they need from you. Then listen without being defensive. It could be that seeing you cry upsets him so that’s why he tries to shut you down. She might long to hear him say their child’s name aloud. Even if nothing changes, sometimes being heard makes a difference.
  • Consider couples’ counseling. Having someone outside your immediate grief circle listen to and guide you through feelings, concerns and problems is almost always helpful. It might only take a few sessions to give you both the tools necessary to walk yourselves through the rough patches.
  • Talk TO your spouse instead of ABOUT him or her. This can be a hard one! I think we all need a safe friend or two who will let us vent. That’s healthy. But it’s not healthy to talk about our spouse to others in what amounts to a bid for support of our own opinions and prejudices. Gathering wood for the fire of offense is easy. Putting out the blaze (even if you want to) is hard.
  • Remember that when feelings fluctuate, commitment carries you through. Grief isn’t just one emotion, it’s a tangled ball of emotions. On a given day you might feel sad, disoriented, angry, anxious and despondent. All that emotional weight is added to whatever else you may be feeling about your spouse. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear and running away seems like the most logical answer. But it’s not. We can never run far enough or fast enough to get away.

There’s no magic to marriage before or after child loss.

It’s mostly work.

We can choose to do that work together in spite of our differences.

We can choose to grow stronger instead of growing apart.

****FULL DISCLOSURE****

My husband and I do not do this perfectly or even close to perfectly. But we are still trying. At different points in this long (almost) six years, we’ve been better or worse at all of it. So don’t think if you are struggling it means you can’t get hang on. Sometimes it’s by the tips of your fingernails, but if you refuse to let go, you can make it.

❤ Melanie

STILL A Mess Some Days…

This post was originally written three years ago. While the details or occasions change, I still find some days I’m a mess.

It’s not nearly as often as it once was and for that I am oh, so grateful.

But the holidays, in particular, seem to make it extra hard to maintain my composure when stress or fatigue are added to missing Dominic.

The other day a conversation about the upcoming holidays devolved into a confrontation.

What I was trying to communicate came out wrong and one thing led to another until I fled- a crying, trembling mess. 

I am trying so hard to manage this life I have left. 

Read the rest here: Some Days, I’m Just a Mess

Grieving While Working: Handling Grief Waves At Inconvenient Moments

A bereaved mom just a month into this journey shared that she feels bad for not being able to handle grief better at work.

She wants to be professional, do her job well and shield unsuspecting coworkers and clients from her tears.

Her question was (slightly expanded):

Does anyone have practical suggestions for how to handle the unpredictable, overwhelming, undeniable waves of grief that come out of nowhere and demand attention regardless of how convenient it might be at that moment?

Here’s my reply (also expanded):

Don’t waste what limited energy you have in these early, especially hard days on beating yourself up! There’s no such thing as a “standard for grieving” even though there may be someone here or there that tries to impose one. Don’t expect too much from yourself.

In the early days, it took every ounce of energy I had to just make it through each day I couldn’t waste any blaming myself for what I might have “gotten wrong”.

Try to find a quiet spot (if possible) or at least a focal point in the room or rooms you work in most often so you can rest your eyes and focus your breathing/thoughts when the inconvenient waves sweep over you.

Often just making a plan is all a heart needs to regain control. As you shift your mental and physical focus, your body will tend to follow.

The little 5-4-3-2-1 centering exercise for anxiety works for nearly any strong emotion.

I wore a necklace or carried a memento in my pocket every day for years. I still do that when I know I’m going into a stressful place. I could reach in (or up), take hold of that physical object and it helped me breathe, slow my heart rate and lasso my emotional response.

Finally, if a tear falls, let it.

Don’t apologize or make it bigger (you can briefly mention you’ve lost a child-if appropriate and the person doesn’t know), wipe it off (or not) and go on.

I’ve found most people follow my lead.

I am so very sorry you even have to figure this out.

It’s not something any parent should have to do.

However you manage is really OK.

I promise. ❤

***If YOU have hints, tips, wisdom or encouragement for other bereaved parents who work AND grieve, please comment! It is such a blessing to hear that another heart has fought this particular battle and is reaching out. ***

Bereaved Parents Month Post: Physical Manifestations of Grief

It’s a well known fact that stress plays a role in many health conditions.  

And I think most of us would agree that child loss is one of (if not THE) most stressful events a heart might endure.  

So it’s unsurprising that bereaved parents find themselves battling a variety of physical problems in the wake of burying a child.  

grief head in hands and stress words

What may be surprising is how uninformed medical and even psychological professionals are with respect to the very real ways child loss intersects with chronic conditions and often creates new symptoms.  

Here is a list of only SOME of the physical manifestations of grief (via What’s Your Grief?) with my own comments :  

Fatigue.  If you’ve always been an energetic sort, you might find this aspect of grief particularly disconcerting.  This kind of fatigue doesn’t get better with rest.  I’ve written about that here. 

Some days I can barely make myself get out of bed and when I do, I struggle to do any but the most necessary tasks.  Don’t automatically dismiss this symptom as ONLY grief (although it most certainly could be!) get a thorough check-up to rule out other causes such as low thyroid, diabetes, heart disease, major depressive disorder or a number of conditions that can be treated effectively with medicine.  Don’t beat yourself up if the doctor decides “nothing is wrong” with you.  You are grieving and grief is work!  I know this symptom has improved for me over time as I’ve established boundaries, admitted limitations and learned to rest when necessary.

charlie brown too tired to cry

Aches and Pains.  Our bodies and minds are connected in ways not well understood.  Mental and emotional distress can make any underlying pain condition that much worse.  When I’m feeling especially lonely, desperate or sad my autoimmune disease flares AND my perception of the very real pain that causes is heightened.  Pain and heartache can lead to a downward spiral that is hard to undo.  Get help and treatment for the physical and give yourself grace and space to endure the emotional causes of body aches.  Don’t self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive coping strategies.  Reach out to a safe person and let them help you find a better way.

painlevels

Headaches.  Needless to say, stress makes tension headaches more likely.  Sometimes, though, a headache can be a symptom of something more serious.  Don’t dismiss an especially sudden, intense or long-lasting headache as “just grief”.  It could be previously undiagnosed high blood pressure, stroke or migraine.  Those being ruled out, various relaxation techniques, cold or warm compresses, over-the-counter analgesics and gentle stretches might help.

Sometimes grief headaches can be alleviated by the simple act of telling our stories.  Bottling up emotions and thoughts adds to the ongoing stress and tension of my child loss burden.  When I spill them-either on paper in a journal, in a closed online bereaved parents’ group or in person to a safe friend or family member-often I feel the band around my head relax and the pain fade away.

Tightness in Chest, Shortness of Breath.  The day I got the awful news, I remember asking friends who came to sit with me over and over, ” Am I still breathing?”  My world was spinning out of control and my body responded.  Anxiety after child loss is real. Broken Heart Syndrome is real.  Heart attacks are not uncommon.  Don’t ignore these symptoms.  But don’t be surprised if they persist despite all tests to the contrary.  When I feel trapped and overwhelmed, a walk outside or even to another room can help.  Deep breathing exercises and grounding exercises can often interrupt an episode.

Broken_Heart_syndrome_EN-01

Forgetfulness.  I wrote this post on Grief Brain: It’s a Real Thing! a couple years ago and am always surprised to see it shared repeatedly.  But I think it strikes a chord with any heart walking through grief.  You are not crazy!  You are not experiencing early onset dementia (most likely).  Like other symptoms, get checked out if they persist or worsen.  But odds are, your experience falls within the range of normal for anyone whose life has been shattered by child loss.  Losing things, forgetting things, getting lost in familiar places, missing appointments or bill payments, inability to remember names of people you know well-all of these are common after loss.  In time, the symptoms usually diminish.  They have for me.  I still have to rely on lists and reminders much more often, though.  And that’s OK.

griefbrain1

Inability to Focus.  Like grief brain, this is another cognitive manifestation that’s not only annoying, it can impact life in significant ways.  Before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I was an avid reader.  I often had three or four books going at the same time.  I could spend hours focused on a single project.  Not anymore.  I sometimes find it difficult to read a recipe.

I have to take frequent breaks when working on something because my mind gets fuzzy and I just can’t pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time.  Some bereaved parents have to change jobs or careers because they are not able to perform necessary tasks anymore.  This particular symptom has not improved very much for me although I’ve found ways around it.  I use lists to keep an external record of what I should be doing and when.  I mix up mindless chores with ones that require more attention to give my brain a break.  I try to dissect larger jobs into smaller, manageable chunks.  And sometimes I just have to admit that today a particular thing just isn’t happening. 

Appetite or Digestive Issues.  Stress has long been linked to gut problems.  I suspect we’ve all had that “rumbling in our tummy” from time to time even before child loss.  For many of us it’s exponentially worse after.  Some bereaved parents try to stuff emotions by stuffing themselves with food.  Others can’t eat at all.  Still others experience stomach ulcers or bowel disease ranging from acute to chronic.  I was hospitalized twice in the first year after my son’s death for serious colon issues.

Again, don’t ignore sudden or persistent symptoms.  Try to eat well and avoid self-medicating with food.  Added pounds rarely add up to better emotional or mental health.  I let pounds I’d lost ten years ago find me again.  Get help if you need to from someone willing to act as an accountability partner.  I’ve recently joined a friend in setting goals for ourselves and sharing recipes and meal prep.  Try to treat food as another aspect of grief work and manage it the best you can.

the struggle bus

Getting Sick More Often.  Stress lowers the immune system.  That’s a fact.  So when bereaved parents encounter germs (as we all do from time to time) it may well be our bodies don’t have the energy or resources to combat them.  Colds, flu, strep throat, skin infections may all be more likely this side of child loss.  Don’t be discouraged to seek treatment.  There is so much we can’t control in life, but getting antibiotics for an infection is pretty easy.

It’s not in your head, mom or dad! 

Grief has real physical manifestations.   

Don’t be dismissed or denied the care you need. 

Educate your healthcare providers and insist on being heard. 

the weight of grief without words

*photo credit:  The Weight of Grief  Scupture ~ Celeste Roberge*

 

Man Proposes, God Disposes

I learned this lesson years ago.  

As a matter of fact, I had a cute little picture on my fridge of a sinking ship that said. “Another day, another disaster”.  

That was before I had actually lived through disaster. 

Now it’s engraved on my heart as well as my mind.  

I think I’m in control.  I think my “to do” list determines a day.  I think I can set the alarm and set my agenda.

But I’m not.  It doesn’t and I can’t.  

loved by the one in control

Last week I was rocking and rolling, moving and grooving.  Making molehills out of mountains and working my list.

Today I’m sitting in my chair, heating pad on my back, barely able to move. 

My body hates me.  

This is the hardest part of chronic illness and lifelong grief-I want to be able to plan ahead, make progress, achieve momentum and finish tasks.  But I just can’t.  I can’t be sure when I go to bed that the next day is going to be anything like what I hope it will be.

If you think weather forecasts are unpredictable, they are solid compared to my life.

And while I absolutely, positively accede God is in control, is sovereign, does not answer to me or anyone else and can order my life and the world as He sees fit; I would love, love, love to have two days in a row that followed a pattern of positive progress.

dear stress lets break up

So I’m just a *little* bit frustrated.  

I know I need to adjust my expectations.  

I’m trying. 

Really.  

 

whenyoucan27tcontrolthewindadjustyoursails

Sleepless Nights

For the first couple of weeks after Dominic left us, I couldn’t fall asleep.  

It was impossible to close my eyes without a dozen awful scenes flashing behind the lids. 

Silent darkness was not my friend.  

Eventually exhaustion won and I could fall asleep but couldn’t stay asleep.  Two or three hours in and my body had just enough rest to shake slumber and force my heart to face another day (even if the sun wasn’t up yet).

Somewhere around year three I finally settled into a pretty regular pattern of between five and six hours of solid sleep.  

back-to-sleep

But for the past several months I’ve lost the rhythm and am once again struggling.

Lots of changes, lots of stress, lots of physical discomfort and lots of lists floating in my head have landed me back in sleepless territory.

to do list

I wish there was a switch I could flip that made it easy to fall and stay asleep.  I wish there was a way to stop stray thoughts from invading my consciousness and my dreams.  I wish I could have a solid week of solid sleep.

I know it would make everything so much easier to manage.

I’d be calmer, more focused, more energetic and more optimistic.

But it’s a vicious cycle.  

I’m hoping long days of hard work in the summer sun will shift my body back to a better rhythm.  

Maybe. 

Eventually.  

sands of time