Widow Brain (aka Mom Brain or Trauma Brain)

Last week I mentioned a trip to Portland, Oregon and said it was my first solo trip since my husband’s death. A day or so later, I remembered that it’s actually my second solo trip since his death—I took the train from Denver to Glenwood Springs by myself in November. That was my first solo trip since Tom’s death and it was amazingly bittersweet. I cried nearly the entire six hour train ride there and then did the same thing on the way back. I went to the Glenwood Springs hot springs alone, forcing myself to do a family- and couples-oriented activity all by myself because I knew I needed to get through the “first time” sooner rather than later. It was an incredible experience that left me feeling both drained and proud. How could I have forgotten something as monumental as that?

The answer is simple: widow brain. This is a close cousin of pregnancy brain, mom brain, and trauma brain. These are all names for feelings of fogginess, slowness, forgetfulness, short-term memory loss, and other cognitive blips that often accompany major life events. It is a totally normal neurological response to stress and happens because the brain is conserving resources. I like the non-technical explanation of widow brain from Widow411:

“When something traumatic happens, it’s like your brain says, ‘Ok let’s take this down a notch’ because you can’t regulate yourself so your brain’s going to do it for you.”

That captures how my brain feels a lot of the time: like it’s running on low power.

My widow brain has manifested itself in many ways:

  • I have trouble learning and retaining new things. Being a widow means having to learn to do things my husband used to take care of, so the fact that learning new things is particularly challenging right now feels ironic. A generous friend took care of my sprinkler system after Tom died and tried to explain to me how to do it myself, but I just shook my head and told him my brain couldn’t absorb the information. More recently, my daughter had to explain to me four or five times, very slowly, how to introduce our reactive dog to someone new. I kept asking her to explain the process to me one more time. Finally, I wrote down what she told me and then held that piece of paper in my hand while doing the introduction. I just could not retain the information or the order of steps.
  • I am forgetful. The Glenwood Springs trip is just one example. I have forgotten names of people I have known for years, where I keep things I use regularly, tasks I do at the same time every day (the poor dogs have gotten a very, very, very late dinner a few times because I forgot to feed them and couldn’t figure out why they were pacing and eyeing me expectantly), and more. I have forgotten events I am looking forward to. One morning in December, for example, I looked at my calendar and was excited to see that I had scheduled time to meet a good friend I hadn’t seen for a while for a drink that afternoon. I was horrified to get a text from her that afternoon telling me she was running late but would be over soon—I had completely forgotten by then! Luckily she was running late and I was able to scramble to get ready by the time she arrived.
  • I lose track of time. Time feels particularly elastic to me right now. I skip meals because I don’t realize lunch or dinner time has come and gone (I have little appetite anyway these days, so my body doesn’t reliably tell me to eat). I stay up later than I planned to because I have no idea what time it is and I’m tired all the time, so being tired isn’t a reliable indicator of bed time. I walk the dogs for an extra half hour because I don’t know how long I’ve been walking.
  • I can’t find my phone. I used to be one of those weirdos who never loses their phone or keys. The first time I lost my phone was the day after Tom had his stroke—I put it down somewhere in the hospital and realized some time later I didn’t have it. Fortunately, someone came across it and brought it to the hospital lost and found. Since then, I’ve misplaced my phone frequently and thoroughly lost it a few times in the house. For those of you who lose your phone all the time, this may seem like a normal event, but for me, it is always accompanied by the thought, “But I don’t lose my phone! How could this be happening?”  
  • I feel disconnected from what I’m doing. I often find myself “going through the motions” rather than feeling engaged in what I’m doing. Thankfully, this happens less and less; of all the widow brain symptoms I’m experiencing, this one seems to be lessening the most dramatically recently. I was worried during the fall that I would never feel connected to my job again. My work as a college professor has been deeply meaningful to me in the past and it was upsetting to feel disconnected from it after Tom died. I was relieved to go back to work this past Monday and feel some excitement about the upcoming semester. It’s a familiar old feeling I hadn’t experienced in a while.

Whether or not you are experiencing grief over a loved one right now, what I’ve described as widow brain may sound like it fits your current experience. That could be because all of us—every single one of us—is experiencing some trauma because of the pandemic right now. We’re all working through the losses accumulating related to changes in work, housing, relationships, health, and more. Grief is about loss. So we all have trauma brain to some degree.

I’m trying to laugh about the silly things I do because of my widow brain and apologize when necessary. I try to appreciate that what I’m experiencing is normal and actually an indication that my brain is healthy. I meditate and chant to help settle my mind. I occasionally do yoga and every single time tell myself I should do it more often; yoga helps unify the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which can help with cognitive function. Note to self: do more yoga.