Out with the Old Brain, in with the New Brain — the Grief Brain

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It’s been a month since my father died. That sentence, as I type it, feels like a lie. And not simply because a substantial part of me wishes it weren’t true, that my father were still alive, but also because of the “month” part.

Because even though I can look at the calendar, piece together the dates that certain events happened and compare them with today’s date… well, it doesn’t feel true. The distance between then and now doesn’t feel like a month.

Some days it feels like it’s been years. Other days it feels like it happened about two days ago. Like I’m still there, still there in the initial darkness, the loss.

For the most part, I’ve only written about the grieving process in my private journals, aside from a few essays I published here. There was, for example, a piece I wrote called Some of Us Struggle Like Birds, which my husband made a point of telling me he liked. This is unusual. My husband regularly reads my blog, but I wouldn’t normally know it since he rarely talks to me about it. And it’s actually quite a rare event that he tells me unprompted he liked something I write.

Not because he doesn’t think I write well. But because he isn’t explicit about things in general. Doesn’t usually put his thoughts into words. My husband just kind of thinks things that he considers obvious and then doesn’t say them ever directly to me. If he talks about me at all, he is more apt to say that to other people than to me. (My late father was the same way, Freudian-ly enough.)

Anyway, the blow by blow, day by day, ground level observations about raw grief? Those are in my private journals. Where I note with surprise whatever feelings I have that day, where they seem to stem from, their timing.

Looking over my notes, I’m consistently scandalized by these feelings. They’re wildly inappropriate — but not in the sense that they violate decorum. By inappropriate, I mean that they don’t square well with what’s actually going on. On certain days I’m suddenly crying at things that aren’t sad. On others, I’m suddenly laughing at things that aren’t funny.

Inappropriate laughter, incidentally, is my favorite grief mood so far, the reigning champion. It might appear absolutely insane if someone were to witness it. But it actually physically feels good to laugh. And it’s harmless.

Anyway, whenever a new kind of inappropriate feeling emerges, I document it dutifully, whatever it happens to be. As I do, I have no sense of what any of it means. But I have a hunch as I document these early days that later on what I wrote will be interesting to me. And perhaps one day I’ll understand it. So I leave these notes for a future self who has a perspective that’s hidden to present me, who is really just trying to make it through this.

I’ve Changed; They Haven’t

I was talking to my mother-in-law today, as I have been frequently since Dad passed. She’s an absolute treat. Really has an outlook on death and grief that gels really well with my own. She lost her own father a while back, when my husband was a small child. And she just has this knack of saying what I need to hear at any given moment. (I honestly don’t know how she does it.)

“I have these moments lately when I’m chatting with friends,” I told her. “And I get mad. Because I’ve changed, and they haven’t. And I can tell just by our conversation. I’m me of course… but my worldview has actually changed. I feel like I’m a reboot of myself.”

It’s honestly been the strangest part of this experience. How much I’m changing because my father’s gone.

And the strangest thing is that I don’t really know how I’ve changed. Not yet. Only that I have. Because I’m just not reacting or relating to people the same way. My interactions with most folks just feel like they don’t fit. Like they’re talking to someone who’s not here anymore.

Sounds a little spooky maybe as I try to explain. Try being the operative word here.

Because I don’t understand it. I only feel it. Perhaps with time, I will understand it better.

Out with the Old Brain, in with the New Brain, the Grief Brain

I’ve read a lot of articles about grief, as the days and weeks have unfolded. To be fair, I knew quite a bit academically, having worked in mental health. And also worked as a researcher in my past.

I had supported others through grief. Read studies about it. On what happens physiologically re: attachment disruption. Best practices in grief counseling. Biggest obstacles for grief clients.

I had written about grief quite a bit myself. On loss.

But I do not know that I had, until now, personally experienced a loss that made me feel so profoundly changed and so soon. I felt bad with previous losses, setbacks, hardships. But I still felt like me. I did not feel like a reboot, like I do now. (Except of course when recovering from PTSD, but that was more gradual and more intentional, a result of working to create significant psychological distance between me and three major traumas.)

And I do not know what it means. I’ve read a lot about grief brain. Typically, this refers to sudden cognitive fuzziness and attentional deficits that are commonly noted in folks who are grieving. Apparently I do have a touch of that. My husband has noted a few times that he’s told me something and he’ll start talking about it later and it’ll be like I hadn’t heard him. While this might be the norm for some folks (my ex-husband was like this at baseline), this is not normal for me.

So I do have the standard grief brain. But part of me wonders if I don’t have a second, more meaningful form of grief brain. Where my perspective has shifted, and I’m undergoing some kind of internal changes, even if I don’t really understand them yet.

I guess we’ll see.

Featured Image: CC BY – Neil Conway