“How could you forget?” he asks, looking at me incredulously. “Really? Again?”
He’s right. How could I forget? But then, these days, I forget a lot of things. “I’m sorry,” I say.
His irritation hurts me, as does my own frustration at not remembering the simplest of things. I seem to live in a perpetual cloud of distraction, unmindfulness being the witness to my every act. I believe I’m being attentive because I truly do listen.
But come a day, a week, a month later and realize that my mind did not retain the information and I stand, dismayed, before my abstracted state of mind.
Since my boy was killed, I make lists. To-do lists. Must-be-done-by-then lists. Which-bills-to-pay lists.
Discarded envelopes lie scattered on my desk as if it’s rained unwanted mail. Their every corner is covered in hastily jotted down words so as to remember to book appointments, answer messages, make a call.
When I tell friends I’ve lost my mind, it’s not in jest. I shyly explain it’s grief fog, a ‘thing’ you get when you’ve suffered a loss the magnitude of mine.
My doctor diagnosed a lack of sleep. “OK, so tell me something I don’t know,” I answered.
She smiled wryly. “It’s normal,” she replied. “It’ll get better with time,” and handed me a bag filled with bath salts and scented candles.
Grief fog. Funny how those words are meant to explain the fact that our brain cells no longer function how they used to.
Lack of concentration? Ah, it’s grief fog.
Regular lapses in memory? Well, what did I expect following a traumatic loss?
After Alex was killed, my brain felt scorched. I couldn’t think straight. It wasn’t until two years into my grief that I realized how affected I was. A good girlfriend showed me a photo of us together. I looked terrible, the ghoul eyes of the newly-bereaved staring out at me.
“Do you remember that day?” she asked.
She had to remind me that she’d stayed at my home for five days. Yes, five days. I had absolutely no recollection of her visit. It was as if it had never happened.
This wasn’t me being absent minded, this was amnesia.
The implications are multiple, that much is obvious. If you work, manage a family, or are having to deal with lawyers following the death of your loved one, you’re not going to be up to the mark. Unfortunately, few understand just how bad it can get.
You may look as if you’re taking it all in, and you probably are, on some level — but the minute you turn away your trauma may wipe your memory clean. For me, it’s a lottery what I actually get to remember.
Stress is the biggie here. Grief causes enormous stress which in turn floods our body with cortisol.
Research shows that the same parts of the brain are affected by emotional loss as by physical pain. It’s known that emotional traumatic brain ‘injury’ following the death of a child or loved one will most often lead to serious changes in brain function.
People talk of grief brain, which manifests in a multitude of ways, grief fog being one of the many symptoms the bereaved have to contend with.
Other indicators of grief brain can include disturbed sleep, fatigue, anxiety, and loss of appetite, and often, following a traumatic loss, PTSD.
It’s five years since Alex died. I’d love to report that I can now will my intellect back whenever I want – but I can’t. I’ve had to slowly learn what works for me, and what to avoid. I’ve done it the hard way by feeling exasperated with myself and annoying quite a few others.
When I’m rested I do see a difference in my ability to focus but I’m hopeless at establishing a good sleep routine, so it’s a work in progress. I also eat home-cooked meals and limit my alcohol intake.
I’m getting better at saying ‘no’ to people when I feel overwhelmed as this lowers stress levels. I’m learning to schedule my social life so it happens in small, gentle doses.
My ability to multitask is coming back, but it’s still a dangerous series of stepping stones that can slip me up when I’m not concentrating and feeling calm. Exercise helps, as does finding time for relaxation.
I’m not re-inventing the wheel here. By adopting a sensible, self-care approach, I can mitigate the effects of brain fog. I’ve learned to gift myself the space for downtime and I’ve lowered my expectations where my memory is concerned.
As the years have grated past, I’ve gradually increased my ability to retain information.
Yet to this day, grief fog remains one of the secondary losses that has come with the death of my son. I’ve had to accept that my memory repeatedly fails me, and probably always will.