Grief Makes Your Brain Work Harder


“To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.”    –Michael Chabon, “Moonglow”

One of the bits of conventional wisdom surrounding the death of a spouse is that the bereaved should wait a year—an admittedly arbitrary period—before making any big life or financial decisions. I’m not sure where that came from, but I’m gaining a little insight as summer approaches.

From the moment we’re born, our brains engage in a complicated process called mapping, trying to help us survive in our environment. As infants this helps us distinguish our mothers from every other human being on earth. As toddlers it helps us distinguish between a dog and a cat. Each moment as we progress through our lives, the brain is mapping new stuff and re-mapping changes to old stuff in the background, as it were. For most of our lives, this is a routine, everyday process. When a spouse dies, re-mapping our world in real time consumes a great deal of our bandwidth. Mentally, we don’t have as much capacity as we’re accustomed to having. Whether we register it or not this is a stressor to our brains.

Most successful long-term marriages approach some kind of “division of labor”, resulting in “his” jobs and “her” jobs. I would argue that in most marriages her list is way longer than his and requires way more thought. All of the kin work, all of the gifts and cards, planning and executing holidays, all of her household chores. Once she is gone, everything becomes “his” job. Suddenly, there is a surfeit of new tasks and responsibilities on top of the old ones. Whatever, it adds additional loads on our brains. More mapping.

The grief triggers we’ve discussed here before can disable our reasoning skills for discreet periods of time, on top of everything else that’s going on. In addition, if the marriage had been longstanding and ‘successful”, it is not uncommon for the widower to want, consciously or subconsciously, a new partner to take the place of the old partner. Perhaps this is because the mapping process is simpler and faster when replacing one person on a map with a different person. Simpler and faster than re-drawing practically every map from scratch. As most of us know or at least remember, finding a suitable partner is difficult at any age, more so as we get older. Pursuit of a new relationship can often place a heavy load on one’s emotional and intellectual capabilities, piling on the stressors. This is true whether the pursuit is successful or unsuccessful.

This could also explain the tendency of widowers to arrive at the end of their lives alone once they’ve been alone for some significant time. Once the maps have all been re-drawn, the brain is likely to resist impulses, romantic or otherwise, which would require starting over again with the maps.

I’ve recently begun attending a weekly group therapy session for bereaved men. During my first meeting, I tried to notice what percentage of these men, all in their 70’s and 80’s, were actively interested in a meaningful new relationship, a Chapter Two, and what percentage found the idea unthinkable. It appeared to be a fairly even split, although the pro-Chapter Two guys appeared more enthusiastic. Since my wife died I have been accused of wanting to plug a new person into the hole in my soul. At first, I resisted the suggestion. Now, it appears likely to have been true, but not so true as to drive me to seek the company of someone ‘unsuitable.’ I am clearly one of the Chapter Two guys.

One thing Chapter Two guys have in common, in addition to the extra loading on the brains trying to develop relationships, is the willingness to make grief for their spouse actually worse, if the pursuit of a female companion is unsuccessful. Then, we have the opportunity not only to grieve for our late wives, but to regret the failure to launch what might have been a lovely Chapter Two.

As regards Chapter Two, it begs the question whether it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. Proponents of this point of view may be more likely to seek a new relationship than opponents, whose experience of marriage may not have been entirely joyful.

The emotional trauma around the death of a spouse, in addition to the additional loading on our brains, certainly suggests waiting for some period of time before getting into the teeth of the earth re-entry system. Must one wait until the grieving is over to begin the process? If so, there are plenty of widows and widowers who will never get another chance to swing at live pitching. We are all well along the back nine of our lives, and we must decide whether we wish to spend the last years of our lives alone or in the company of an other. Our grief is highly likely to subside over time; we will never stop missing our wives, but that’s different from grieving for them.

Personally, I would like to seize the day.