Shortly after my mom died, I drove to see a friend who was in town visiting from New York City. We met for lunch at a restaurant, and on the way home I unconsciously drove through a red light. Thankfully, no other cars were around. A few weeks later, I went through a stop sign, and then I accidentally overflowed the bath a few different times, flooding several rooms in the house, in that first year or two.
These kinds of blunders and mishaps are attributed to grief brain. Grief brain is not a myth. It’s when your cognitive functions are compromised due to grief, when everything is not functioning on all cylinders. Grief brain can affect your ability to function in formerly easy tasks. Your memory and concentration, your visual-spacial acuity, and decision-making processes can all be affected. I remember speaking to a woman the summer after my mom died. She said it took her three full years for her concentration and focus to begin to return after her mom passed.
While people may look functional, what’s going on in the brain is largely undetected by an outside observer. Even word fluency and the speed in which information gets processed can be disrupted. I have heard people in deep grief, whether through the death of a partner or child, or another kind of loss, suddenly stuttering where before they had not ever stuttered. I remember speaking haltingly, at times, having a hard time getting the words out smoothly if I were speaking about my mom and her death. I remember telling a grief counselor that word recall was not coming as easily, wondering aloud if I was getting some form of early dementia. She said no, it was the stress of grief.
Motivation also gets taxed in grief. People think you can just get up and go and do. Someone suggested that I go to an art fair the weekend after my mother died. A crowd of people? Doing something my mom and I would have done together? Were they nuts? While they were trying to be helpful, it was preposterous. It was the last thing I would want to do. I was splattered against the wall and melted onto the floor, no one knew how much. It would take years for me to start to peel myself off and up. And I’m still peeling.
I looked highly functional as I took care of the myriad details that occur after the death of a loved one, but I knew I was far from truly functional. The only thing I knew to do after my mom’s death was to reach for help. Help that would be warm, comforting, nurturing. The list was short: Find a grief counselor, find a trauma counselor, find a medical herbalist. Find people who would sit and be with me through this terrible time. It can still make me weep to think of it. It is still terrible to remember. It is still not an easy time. And for those of you who know me, that may not be easy to read. And yet, it is my present-day truth, and to write and express and say what is, is helpful to me.
What Brings Relief?
Deep recognition from another person, a witness to how you may really be feeling, can be a source of comfort. Acknowledging the depth of pain, without any ifs, ands, or butts, serves the heart of the griever. Words that resonate, words that are validating and understanding, without presumption, calm a distressed nervous system and begin to repair and restitch a traumatized brain. Kind resonant language that says, “I hear you. I see you. I’m with you. I feel you. You are okay just as you are. What you are feeling is natural … of course you miss your loved one, of course,” is like filling for the cracked broken spaces of one’s soul. Like the Japanese pottery style, Kintsugi or “golden joinery,” the practice of mending broken pottery with a lacquer that is mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. One’s loving and compassionate words, as well as empathic silence, can bring a kind of golden relief.
To be alone after the death of a loved one is a deeper terrible mess. I didn’t know people where my mom lived and so I had no social network. The phone would not ring for literally days. While self-care is the expression of our modernized stressed-out world, often we need community-care. Sometimes there is no energy for self-care: to make good meals, to get exercise, to try to sleep. Sometimes self-care is community care, a friend nearby to walk with or cry with. Someone to have dinner with, a friend to sleepover.
Unbeknownst to them, “community” became the people at my local grocery store. I made sure that I got up every day, showered, dressed, and went to the store just to see another human being, just to walk the aisles. I was grateful to the rare person who could sit and be with me just as I was, without denial or platitude or judgment as to how I was. The presence of such a person was like sunshine on my heart. It was reassuring. It was life. It was a sacred connection. It was a moment of belonging in a long and lonely stretch of time.
I further reached within to access what I knew. I researched my ancestry. I called out to the relatives and friends who had already left this world. Those who I believed, in some sense, helped hold me to Earth, even without their physical presence. The gold that filled the deep cracked fissures in my being, not only due to the death of my mom but also to several of my closest friends and more relatives who died in these years, was the love they left behind, and is their present-day spiritual love from a realm beyond.
There’s a saying among the grieved that grief takes work. It is among the hardest work out there. It is exhausting work because it is attending to yourself in a different way. It is attending to your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual life in a way that most people are not accustomed to. It is paying attention to yourself with kindness and compassion. This ‘work’ is not easy to do in a society known for its rush to achieve and accomplish, more into correcting another with advice than connecting to each other with presence.
We have an epidemic of loneliness because we are unable to find a community in which love and understanding, acceptance and belonging are embodied along with whatever else someone might specifically need: be that a healthy dose of humor or creative well-being, warm hugs, companionship and accompaniment. Necessary nutrients for people who are lost in the loneliness of grief. Be that grief from the death of a loved one or a non-death grief.
In this “work,” we are endeavoring to re-member that which cannot ever be restored. Re-membering as in allowing the shattered and broken pieces of our soul to find each other in a different form—in their own time. In this reweaving of our smashed pottery bits with gold, we often need to do less and try less and, instead, find rest. Rest for our physicality that is taxed, rest for our nervous system that is crashing, rest for our brains that have been exploded by grief or traumatized by loss. Rest as a balm to calm the grieving brain.
After my mom died, I kept hearing her telling me to rest. She was the best rester of anyone I knew, able to turn the world off and dive deep into a place inside of her own self to find refuge and peace. I kept hearing her say, “Rest, rest, rest.” She always repeated it three times. “Rest, rest rest. You need to rest. I can come to you in rest. I can lift you up in rest.” And so I did, and so I do. Not easy amidst the constant and myriad flow of details to take care of alone, now. It is an effort to rest, for sure. To stop and do nothing for a time takes a new kind of discipline, a discipleship to yourSelf.
Her encouragement to find restorative “rest” from her world beyond further branched out into four steps. An acronym for REST came:
It helped me. It has helped others who are learning to get off the spinning wheel of life to rest and see anew. So, next time you know you are experiencing grief brain: if you find yourself overflowing the bathtub or inadvertently running a light, or when you are simply exhausted by life, running on empty to the next thing without any ongoing and sustained individual or community support, remember that your reactions and responses are quite understandable and normal in an extraordinary time.
Remember to reach for help in any way you can, whatever help means to you. Remember the resilience of your brain. Remember that rest, like good company and food, is as essential as the sun on your skin and the water in your blood.
I love this quote. “Don’t forget to drink water and get some sunlight because basically you’re a house plant with more complicated emotions.”
So while you are watering and sunning, yes, remember to get rest, too!
I wish you love and comfort and peace in the simple joys,
To learn about these four steps to REST, and incorporate rest more deeply into your life, please check out the course. It’s on sale now, half-price, with the coupon code RESTWELL at www.how2rest.com
Excellent and nurturing grief support can be found at these sites: