Understanding “Widow Brain”: What Happens When Aging Parents Grieve?

Grief is unpredictable. Loss makes all of us act in ways that seem alien to our nature, our minds attempting to understand and process our new reality. We don’t always know how to handle grief ourselves; how much more so, then, are we left in the dark when the person grieving is someone dear to us?

In this article, we’ll explore the phenomenon of “widow brain,” exploring how age and grief can intersect to cause unexpected changes. We’ll then show you how to care for your loved one, teaching you positive coping skills they can practice, and exploring how transitions can improve quality of life.

What is “Widow Brain:” Breaking Down the Disease

Before diving into the definition of widow brain, let’s start with a key scientific concept: grief rewires the brain. It’s the mind’s attempt to protect itself from a traumatic event that results in a fight-or-flight reflex being consistently triggered. As a result, grief can have a variety of symptoms that vary from person to person, including:

  • Immune system damage;
  • Straining of the heart muscles;
  • Changes in sleep patterns;
  • Behavioral shifts.

“Widow brain” is a colloquial term for one of these symptoms. Widow brain is a long-lasting brain fog that increases your loved one’s chances of forgetting details, losing focus, and having trouble concentrating. Typically lasting about 12 to 18 months, it follows the loss of a spouse and is an experience that patients have described as distressing and frustrating.

As your loved one’s support system, approach this situation with compassion and understanding. If it starts to visibly frustrate them, remind them that it’s completely normal and temporary; though this condition may be alarming, it isn’t permanent, and with time and distance, their mind will heal. Knowledge is the first step to acceptance of the problem, and then you can proceed to treatment that lessens the quality-of-life impact.

Practicing Coping Skills: Getting Through the Moment

The psychological distress caused by feelings of foggy or lost memory can’t be banished outright; but it can be lessened, with the right coping skills. Teaching your loved one to cope with feelings of frustration and loss through a positive outlet is a skill that will help them in the short term, but also possibly insulate them against memory loss in the long term. Moreover, many of the coping skills that strengthen memory are light, low-effort exercises that encourage positive mental and physical health.

Some of these skills include:

  • Journaling: Journaling is a positive outlet for mental health all around; but for those struggling with memory loss, it can hold special significance. As they use journaling to relieve their frustrations and concerns, they’re also creating a physical reference point that can be used later. Encouraging your loved one to reminisce on positive experiences as they write can be a fulfilling way to channel positive emotions as well as negative, and provide a level of reassurance to fears around memory loss.
  • Observation: Practicing focusing techniques like active listening, mindfulness, and note-taking allows your loved one to ground themselves in the moment. These techniques are often taught as methods for coping with negative emotions, but can also act as a memory reinforcement exercise.
  • Physical activity routines: These routines are typically prescribed as medicine for keeping the mind and body healthy, warding against conditions like depression and anxiety, and encouraging a happier, healthier lifestyle. Even something as simple as taking a daily walk provides the mental structure of routine, while also benefiting your body with a consistent exercise regimen.
  • Picking up new hobbies: Trying out a new hobby can benefit older adults in two ways: instilling a sense of satisfaction and pursuing ongoing learning. One of the best ways to keep your mind healthy is to continue to learn, encouraging new pathways to form in your brain. Filling your loved one’s days with a new purpose helps exercise their mind doing a leisurely activity, providing some degree of reinforcement by keeping their brain active.

Healthy coping skills will likely differ a bit from person to person; the idea is to find the one that’s right for your loved one, and encourage them to practice and pursue it. These coping skills will provide an outlet for negative emotions and bolster a positive outlook until the storm of Widow Brain passes.

Considering Relocation: A New Beginning

If practicing coping skills and staying in place doesn’t lift the fog of grief, maybe a more drastic change is what’s needed. Old places evoke memories, which can, in turn, reinforce feelings of grief and distress.

While not right for everyone, relocation to an elder care facility can surround your loved one with a supportive community, provide opportunities for new connections, and provide safe, stable care. Alternatively, you could consider helping your loved one move to another location all their own; sometimes, even if they don’t need a higher level of care, moving into a home without as many memories can be helpful for coping with grief.

This is not a decision to come to lightly nor without communication with your loved one. The decision to move (whether to a care facility or another domicile) should be one made by all parties, and not on pretenses conjured up by depression. If you think moving elsewhere might be the next best step for your loved one’s ongoing health and happiness, follow these steps:

  • Communicate the intent behind the move, how you think it will benefit them, and that the option is entirely in their hands.
  • Plan how their items will be moved, which will be kept, and who will be supporting your loved one as they move.
  • Connect your parent with doctors and healthcare services in the new area, getting references from current providers, and scheduling appointments in advance.
  • Maintain and repair their current property before executing the move.
  • Move to the new facility or home, and make sure all is in order.
  • Arrange the new living area in a way your loved one is used to, evoking familiarity to help them adjust to the change.

We hope this guide imparted the tools you need to support your loved one through this difficult time. Whatever level of support they need, the important thing is that they’re in an environment in which they can thrive – even in the midst of difficult feelings like grief.


Meet the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on health and wellness. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on X.

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