I’m reading Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. It’s scrumptious. In this retelling of her husband Ray’s sudden death, her writing is beautifully broken and raw. It’s not that she writes in fragments but her thoughts are short and contained. One thought at a time. One truth or one question or one observation. The story is told by a grieving brain.
Don’t get me wrong – the book is still written by one of the most prolific narrative writers of our time. And while I’m no Joyce Carol Oates, my grieving brain has made a friend with her grieving brain.
Grieving brain is odd. Grief affects many areas of our brain. I found this great article by Barbara Fane, that has helped me understand what is going on in my brain. For example,
Our parasympathetic nervous system (in the brain stem anda lower part of our spinal cord) controls our autonomic nervous system – rest, breathing, digestion. When a person is grieving, breath can become short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases. And sleep can be disturbed; insomnia can be an issue.
Our prefrontal cortex/frontal lobe holds the ability to find meaning, to plan, helps with self control and self expression. “Scientific brain scans show that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly impact your emotional and physical processes. Articulation and appropriate expression of feelings or desires may become difficult or exhausting.”
The limbic system, the emotion-related brain region, particularly thte hippocampus portion “is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention and our ability to take interest in others.” While we are grieving, this area of our brain creates responses to loss and grief as a threat as a way to protect us from more pain.
I can attest to my parasympathetic nervous system being fully functional.
My breathing is shallow. My appetite is not what it used to be. I can’t finish sentences – and not like many of us who can’t find the right word sometimes. I am at a loss for words in regular speech so regularly that I’ve grown accustomed to speaking at a different cognitive level or being incredibly quiet in social settings. My vocabulary and syntax is decades below what they were before Pete died.
As a pastor, I have feared I am not fully engaging with people in my congregation. Building relationships has always been the foundation for my ministry. But I’ve noticed that when others are telling me stories, I’m listening but not engaging the way I have for the whole of my adult life. Sometimes it feels like there is a me watching me listening to someone tell me a story.
The best advice I’ve received is what would you say to someone if they came to you with these concerns? I would give them so much grace. I’d say, “Oh my word, you’re grieving your husband, your best friend. Your entire life is upside down. Of course you can’t breathe deeply! Of course you can’t finish sentences! You’re doing just fine. Be patient with yourself. Be kind.”
But now having gone through this, I would add, “your brain is doing the best it can and its even doing some of these things to help you. It’s good to remember that grief is a process of the mind and body.”
I have worked so hard at controlling my thoughts, keeping my mind focused on what I think is best. But at the end of the day, I am a body. My body, specifically my brain, is working at Pete’s death. And I will choose to embrace my brain and its process.
My brain misses Pete as much as my body.
Books I'm currently reading: