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The Grief Fog

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By Sheila Newton, Ph.D., LMFT

Like a thick veil slowly descending, blanketing itself over you and obscuring your vision, you can’t help but give in to the weight of its powerful effect. These are times when you cannot think, cannot feel, cannot see or eat or speak. The death of a spouse, child or anyone that you love dearly can leave you in this experience. No one wants to be in this place, especially not you.

You are caught in a state of involuntary limbo, cocooned within an instantly diminished world of opaque nothingness. For an unquantified period of time, you are absolutely detached from everything, even yourself. You are immediately lost, frozen, paralyzed, encased alone in your time capsule — surreal, grief-stricken and falling into a bottomless empty black hole that will enclose you in obscurity. This condition called grief fog commonly occurs in men, women and children after a significant loss or traumatic event.

As you feebly attempt to move through your basic motions of a robotic routine, it can seem as though you have 10-pound weights all over every inch of your body. As a tidal wave of immense exhaustion is settling into your bones, you’re barely aware you’re moving in ultra slow motion. You may try to ward off the effects of the fog, but you come to realize you just don’t have the energy at this time to deal with anything. You struggle and find yourself yielding inch by inch, as you surrender by degrees into default acceptance of the effects of the grief fog, the brain’s armor of traumatic self-protection.

As you continue falling down into an endless vertical tunnel, at whatever point is suited just for you, reality eventually creeps in. It is then when you begin to feel. The grief fog occupies the space between your receiving the news of the death of your loved one and feeling the agonizing pain and absence of that person from your life.

When someone we love dies, the grief affects our brain to the extent that it impairs our memory function, our ability to concentrate and multitask. Euphemistically speaking, our vision gets blurred. We can’t see things in the distance and much of the time we can barely see what’s right in front of us. We tend to be forgetful and often misplace things so many times that we (or our family and friends) begin to worry if it’s early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s. That can be evaluated by professionals; however, in times of grief the fog can become nature’s protective blanket that wraps around us, that limits our ability to see, interferes with our thought process and restricts our ability to move. What we can do is slow down and stop. We have to. It is a matter of basic survival of the “self.”

Grief is an assault on our mind, emotions and our physicality. These fractured parts of our being have gone haywire at the same time. We’re obliged to learn how to deal with each one and coordinate them with each other to get back to functioning as a whole unit. But this takes time. That’s where the protective layer of the grief fog has its purpose. It makes us slow down to learn how to just be in that particular moment — one moment at one time. We have to proceed slowly after we learn how to be still and regain our bearings. If we don’t, we are susceptible to being injured, losing focus on the necessity to stay safe and alive. In each moment thereafter, the single job is to breathe and survive. It may sound simple but it becomes the hardest thing ever to do.

Many of us turn to our faith to help guide us through the darkness. We have family, friends, licensed professionals, clergy and mentors to help us through the thicket. The more density, the more protection we must need. It’s as if we’re frozen in time having things grind to a screeching halt. It can make us forget, it can make us dazed and glazed. It anesthetizes us from our pain, insulates and delays our suffering, cushions the blows of chaos and change.

Being in the grief fog can be a respite from reality; tragedy’s timeout or pause button. If you were driving and there was a dense fog in front of you, you would definitely slow down, be very wary, hyper aware of your surroundings and proceed with extreme and utmost caution. Depending on the thickness, you may even come to a complete stop because in that moment, everything else ceases to matter except your basic survival. The fog won’t last forever; it may last only a brief time. It is different for everyone. However long it does last, it has a way of challenging you to yield and pay attention to its undeniable presence.

This is when you can give the grief fog purpose in your life. You can give yourself permission to slow down and remind yourself to do one thing. Breathe. Stop and just breathe. Take as much time as you need. When you’re ready, you’ll begin to do basic simple things again such as get up out of bed or your designated chair, take a shower, eat, sleep, look at TV or listen to music, play with your pet, check in with a family member or friend.

When there is an upsurge of energy, you may even take a walk, knit, garden, rearrange a drawer, put together a puzzle, cook, journal, write poetry, etc. Like the infinity symbol turned on its side, on the left you have grief and on the right you have your life and resources. When you’re in your grief, honor it. When you’re on the other side, you are utilizing your resources. The natural flow of life is to experience both as needed. Only you can determine how often and when you go back and forth across that little infinity bridge on your very own personal journey until you are again in the land of the living.

By Sheila Newton, Ph.D., LMFT