Working with grieving people for more than thirty years has given us a wealth of practical experience. Amongst the many observations we've made is the fact that grieving people often seem to be slower to respond to even the simplest of questions, and to be baffled by tasks that are normally routine. Imagine that your brain has been filled up with three quarts of molasses. That is pretty much the effect that a major loss event can have on your capacity to think, feel, and participate in life.
Grief affects concentration
We offer this truth for the dual purpose of helping grievers and for helping those around grievers. If you have experienced a major significant emotional loss of any kind, there is a high probability that your ability to concentrate on day to day activities may be severely limited. You may have an idea, walk to the next room to act on it, and when you get there, realize that you haven't got the faintest idea what it was you had intended to do. If you hear nothing else, please hear that this is a normally occurring phenomenon. Recognize that your entire being - emotional, physical, and spiritual - is focused on the loss that just occurred. When possible it is a good idea to avoid driving and working with any tools that require concentration and mental co-ordination. An incredibly high percentage of serious and fatal auto accidents befall grieving people.
It is essential that you recognize this naturally occurring inability to concentrate. It is equally important that you not judge yourself harshly for being dazed, confused, and preoccupied. But most important, you must be gentle with yourself. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by hammering yourself for being normal and human.
For those of you who are near and dear to friends who have recently experienced a painful loss of any kind. Read all of the above - reread all of the above. You must recognize that the inability to concentrate is the single most common of all responses to loss. Do not berate. Do not scold. Do not have an opinion or judgment. Remember your friend is on another planet - the planet grief. Their entire being is trying to make sense out of an incredibly painful experience.
By definition, "grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss of any kind." Most of us have been falsely socialized to shift the emotional reaction into the intellect. But, the head is not broken - the heart is broken. You must resist the temptation to make intellectual comments to your grieving friend. For example; while it is intellectually accurate that "life goes on," many grievers have a hard time participating in life at all, so life "goes on" without them.
If someone staggered towards you with an arrow sticking out of their chest, and blood dripping from the wound, you would probably recognize that the person might be in massive physical pain. It's unlikely that you would say "Don't feel bad, at least it wasn't a poison arrow," and just keep walking past them. More likely, you would say "My gosh, you must be in terrible pain, let me call an ambulance."
Yet when someone's heart has been broken by a major loss, most people say "Don't Feel bad, you should feel grateful you had them so long." While it may be intellectually accurate that you have a great deal of gratitude in that relationship, that is usually not the foremost emotional response to the death of a loved one. Perhaps it would be helpful to imagine that there is an emotional arrow sticking out of their chest. It will remind you to respond more helpfully.
Even though death can be separated into two categories, sudden death or long term illness, ultimately all death is sudden. Don't make the mistake of thinking that if someone has tended to a dying loved one for a long time, that they would automatically have less pain then someone who has lost someone to a sudden death. In fact, it is a good idea to make no assumptions at all. The finality of death, along with end of any hopes of a miracle remission or cure, brings a tremendous amount of emotional pain.
For many people, drowning in a sea of painful emotions, numbness seems like a constant companion. It may take hours or even days to sort out the feelings and thoughts that have been unearthed by the death of a loved one. The death of a "less than loved one" may produce even more confusing emotions.
We have been talking mainly about reactions to death. The emotional response to divorce, while different, is parallel. Divorce is the "death of a relationship." Quite often, one divorcing partner feels as if there has been a sudden death and one feels like they have been caught in a long term illness. In either situation, there is liable to be the same inability to concentrate that effects those responding to death. It is also quite probable that those reeling from the affects of a divorce will have some difficulty identifying the feelings they are experiencing. As we pointed out earlier, this reduced ability to concentrate is normal. Don't fight it. Be gentle with yourself. Avail yourself of The Grief Recovery Handbook as soon as possible. It is never too soon to begin to recover.
Friends, be alert to the emotional arrow that you can't see. Your friend has a broken heart. You need to be gentle also.
If you found this article helpful, we suggest you visit our searchable Grief Blog for other articles or you may be interested in these:
Emotional CPR, Can You Imagine?
End of a Relationship: common Responses and How They Hurt You
Thank you for all the work you do. I am working the workbook. Im getting ready to do my loss graph. im coming to realize I have been in grief all my life.Starting at the age of five.i found my babysister passed away.I have had death after death in my life.Also moving,health,and broken relationships.But it wasnt till I lost both parent this last year they died months apart...both drug and alchol related.My mother and I where both in recovery..I had a relaps after six years...my mother and i started using pain meds together.I was diagnosed with fybromyalgia and cronic back pain.Well I made it back to recovery..she didnt.Can you hear the guilt? Im working on it.I am back involved in the 12th step work...but am so ever greatful you talked about that while thats good it doesnt deal with grief...i feel when i look back after reading in the workbook that i hit a spot in my life where i just shut down.I had an internal saddeness.Even tho i was sober i felt my health was taken from me and there was one more thing taken from me.I could write a book to you guys...but i wont...ha! again thank you..im going thru the work...letting people know about you...and i hope to be setting in one of your training courses...we have nothing like you guys teach here in salina kansas...I would love to bring it to our community.I know first i need to have completion before I am able to help others.I love the article above my concentration is awful.I was remined not to be so critical of myself..thank you
thank u for this article. it has helped me to understand grief as i just lost a close loved one at christmas and have been completely numb for some time. it's hard to see light at end of tunnel especially when u don't understand what's going on w/ ur person. <
Thank you for the comment Jan. If you are interested, you can find one of our Certified Grief Recovery Specialists using this link http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/outreach-program/
They will be able to assist you.
I understand this completely! When my pastor husband left me for a woman he had been counseling, I was shocked, numb, and bewildered. I remember trying to put on my makeup and not remembering what to do next. I grieved for a long time. During that time, I was returning from work one evening and drove through a stop sign I knew well, without even realizing it was there, and was in a bad accident. I absolutely knew it was caused by my lack of concentration because of my grief, but when people asked how it happened, I felt I couldn't explain that to them, that it wouldn't even make sense to them, so I just said I didn't know. I have never felt validated when I have tried to explain this distractedness that comes with grief to people who haven't experienced it. Thank you for this article.
Really great article and incredibly useful. So much of it feels very pertinent. Thank you so much for this.
You are very welcome! We are glad that you have found it so useful and helpful.
When my son died, it took me about a year to regain an ability to concentrate. When my parents died within 3 weeks of each other, the concentration problem reappeared, but only for a couple months. Then when the trial of the person who killed my son happened, the pain reappeared. It took about a month to feel better. I am going to post your article on the TCF-Loss to Homicide group. Thank you.
Thankyou for providing this information and so well written. I have returned to work following the death of my husband - I thought I was doing well but I keep making mistakes in my job and beating myself up because 'I should know better' now I understand and I will give myself more breathing space.
Glynis, we are so very sorry for your loss. You went through and are still going through a huge grieving event. Be gentle with yourself during this time and know that grief does affect many aspects of our lives.
I find it very difficult, however, to focus on complex tasks like computer programming or composing music. It's as if I just don't care anymore. My son's death "took the wind out of my sails."
stephen moeller, grief recovery specialist
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