“The Fog of Grief”
by April Reese
Aeon, August 10, 2021
I hope all is well with you. I saw your call for Psyche pitches and wondered if an idea I’ve been mulling over might be of interest. My father passed away two weeks ago, just three months after his wife died (not my mother), and amid my grief I’ve been struck by the effect it’s had on my brain — and most surely had on his. I feel disoriented, foggy-headed, and sometimes, short of breath. Everything seems to take a little longer than normal to process; seemingly simple decisions about things like what to fix for dinner feel overwhelming. (To make that particular decision easier, I’ve written down a list of potential meals and posted it on my refrigerator.) Curious about this grief-induced brain fog, I began researching what, if anything, the science says about it, and whether/how it differs from depression and anxiety. I learned that there is, indeed, a body of research on this phenomenon. It turns out that the widely known “five stages of grief” is now considered inaccurate by many psychologists, and recent research takes the view that the effects of grief, however unpleasant they may be, are a way of helping the mind and body cope with the loss and, eventually, adapt to the new reality of life without a loved one.
For Psyche (or Aeon, if you think this might fit better there), I’d like to write a 1500-word reported essay that explores the strange influence grief has on the brain, what the science says about what happens to a grieving brain, and suggestions for how to accept and manage it. Among the experts I’d speak with are Lisa M. Shulman, a neurologist at the University of Maryland who has written about her own “grief brain” after losing her husband (she writes: “To sustain function and survival, the brain acts as a filter sensing the threshold of emotions and memories that we can and cannot handle”) and Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of a 2019 overview of grief research in the journal Psychosomoatic Medicine.