Since your pet died or went missing, has thinking a coherent thought been like wading through treacle? Are you experiencing brain fog that manifests as memory loss, confusion or an inability to concentrate?
Do you walk into a room and forget what you’re there for, miss appointments, struggle to stay organised or feel distracted?
If so, please be reassured that, as scary as it feels, all of this is a natural response to grief and should be temporary.
Why do we experience brain fog when we’re grieving?
Brain fog is such a common symptom of grief that it even has its own name: Griever’s fog.
One reason it happens is because bereavement is a trauma, even if it’s expected. In response to this trauma, the body produces the stress hormones – cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline – because it believes you need to be ready for “fight or flight” at a moment’s notice.
As evolved as we humans think we are, our bodies and brains still have a fairly primitive response to stress; bereaved or about to run for your life from an attacker, our stress hormones can’t tell the two apart!
But when your body and mind are flooded with these hormones, it can affect your ability to remember things, concentrate or make decisions (because who needs to remember what they came into a room for when they’re running away from an attacker?!)
Even without the stress hormones as a factor, bereavement is such a huge emotional event to process that it’s completely understandable if you’re struggling to track the more commonplace things in life.
Brain fog is your brain’s way of protecting you
It seems that Mother Nature has gifted us with brain fog as a kind of protective mechanism for coping with a bereavement.
By dulling your senses for a while, brain fog acts as a cushion between your thoughts and reality, giving you an almost-surreal space to begin to process your pet loss. In fact, common grief reactions such as shock, numbness, confusion and disorientation are all connected to the brain fog induced by stress hormones.
Our stress hormones can affect our ability to create short-term memories (which is why you might forget whether or not you’ve eaten today) or to turn short-term memories into long-term ones, which can be why it’s so hard to remember the days following a bereavement.
In addition, activity in parts of the brain such as the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) decreases – or changes – at a time of stress or trauma because the body needs to channel its resources to survival rather than laying down new skills or memories.
Of course, pet loss grief can also disrupt your sleep, appetite, immune system and mood (a lot of that being down to those stress hormones too). These are all factors that can affect your ability to concentrate or enjoy life the way you did before your pet died.
How can you improve your grief brain fog?
You may not have noticed how foggy your brain felt until you tried to do “normal” things like carry out a task at work or even cook a meal.
Griever’s fog can impact everything, from how we perform in our jobs to our ability to connect with our friends and family.
For this and many other reasons, it’s important that you show yourself as much self-care as possible, despite your current sense of shock.
In most cases, grief-triggered brain fog eventually goes away on its own. This can take days for some people and weeks or months for others.
If you are at all worried that your brain fog is getting worse over time, we recommend that you have a chat with your doctor. It could be a sign that you’re experiencing complicated grief, which is when the intense feelings of grief persist for so long that you end up feeling stuck and need support to move forward.
In the meantime, the following tips may help you:
- Give your grief space to exist – You loved your pet very much and your grief is a natural expression of that. Unfortunately, you can’t think your way through grief; you need to feel it.
- Connect with supportive people – This could be friends and family or other bereaved pet carers (for example, in The Ralph Site Facebook Group).
- Acknowledge that your life is on a different path to when your pet was alive – The surreal nature of brain fog can keep us wanting to go back to before our loss (after all, this new state of mind doesn’t feel real). It’s important to recognise this.
- Seek bereavement support – You might find it helpful to speak to a pet bereavement counsellor or support line.
- Set reminders for yourself – If it’s making you feel anxious that you’re forgetting appointments or even whether you’ve eaten today, you could set reminders in your phone. A free app like Todoist can help you track what you need to do and when.
- Be gentle with yourself – You are feeling physically and emotionally vulnerable right now. Sadly, bereavement leave doesn’t formally exist for bereaved pet carers but if you’re able to take some time off, it might help you navigate the worst of the brain fog.
- Ask people to follow up with you if you’ve made plans together – If you’re meeting up with a friend and struggling to remember the arrangements, you could ask them to message you beforehand with a reminder.
Grief brain is real
Grief brain is certainly real. If you’re finding it hard to keep track of conversations or to read or watch TV or complete tasks at work, we hope this will reassure you that it’s a natural response to loss. We understand this doesn’t make the brain fog less distressing but maybe you can find some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. Give yourself time. Be kind to yourself. Reach out for support if you need it. One day, the fog will lift. Until then, take things a day at a time.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support