Grief can make you feel forgetful, spacey, and unable to express your thoughts. These effects are likely temporary.

Losing a loved one is a natural and universal life event, but that does not make it any easier. The death of those close to us is one of the greatest stressors we face as humans.

Grief impacts us emotionally and physically. The intensity of this loss can lead to a symptom known as grief brain. When this happens, you may find yourself having trouble sleeping, concentrating, and remembering simple things.

This symptom is a typical part of grief. For most people, it goes away by itself over time.

Grief can rewire our brain in a way that worsens memory, cognition, and concentration. You might feel spacey, forgetful, or unable to make “good” decisions. It might also be difficult to speak or express yourself.

These effects are known as grief brain.

Acute grief refers to the symptoms a person experiences during the first 6 months after losing a loved one. These are usually the most intense.

Your days may involve a mixture of yearning and sadness along with constant thoughts, memories, and images of the loved one. Small tasks can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

In a typical grieving process, these symptoms tend to decrease over time. You’ll notice sharper thoughts and clearer memories coming back.

Everyone is different, and for some, grief lasts a little longer. If symptoms last longer than 12 months, it may be diagnosed as prolonged grief disorder.

The longer that intense symptoms last, the greater the chance of developing longer-term changes in your brain and body. Grief can also affect your immune system, heart, and brain.

The brain reacts to grief or emotional trauma in the same way it handles stress.

Although low levels of stress can be a good thing, chronic stress is not. Grief that lasts for weeks, months, or longer can push the body into a state of chronic stress.

Chronic stress puts the brain into long-term survival mode. This means:

  • Fight-or-flight hormones are released.
  • Your heart rate increases.
  • Blood flows to the more emotional and fear-based parts of your brain instead of the higher thinking regions.

Your prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain highly involved in decision-making, becomes less active. At the same time, your limbic system, which is all about survival, takes over.

Depending on the severity (strength) of the emotional response, the brain starts to rewire its regular nerve connections and create new pathways. In other words, more emotional and fear-based thoughts start to replace your long-held beliefs about the world.

Constant reminders of the loved one’s passing, like their favorite shirt or TV show, continue to trigger the stress response and make these new pathways stronger.

Over time, grief can affect:

  • attention
  • memory
  • decision-making
  • the ability to choose words and express yourself with the right language
  • information processing speed
  • cognitive functions that rely on movement and depth perception

Grief severity may be tied to mental health

A 2019 research review on neuroimaging suggests that the more severe a person’s grief reaction, the greater the effect on the brain.

For instance, researchers have found differences in rumination, inflammation, and cortisol dysregulation between people who are resilient after the death of a loved one and people who are not.

In two studies in the review, the majority (60%) of the bereaved had a resilient grieving pattern. This means they had lower levels of depression and higher emotional stability than people with chronic grief.

By 6 months, resilient people showed no increase in depressive symptoms or functional impairment.

People with resilient grieving patterns usually shift back and forth between loss-related thoughts and restoration-related thoughts, like testing out their new role or identity.

Other times, these people are just engaged in everyday life. Continuing to experience sharp pangs of grief is typical.

When a loved one dies suddenly or violently, it can lead to additional mental health symptoms in the people who mourn them.

Unexpected death is more strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder than expected death, according to a 2014 study.

Prolonged grief disorder happens when people are unable to cope or adjust after the death of a loved one. This was previously called complicated grief.

About 2.4% to 6.7% of bereaved adults may experience prolonged grief. This statistic is worldwide and may speak to the differences in how different cultures view death and loss.

A person with prolonged grief experiences noticeable distress or impairment in social or work settings. This could also extend to other important areas of daily life. Grief reactions occur most of the day, nearly every day for at least 1 month.

Symptoms of prolonged grief disorder may include:

  • extreme emotional pain from the loss (sorrow, anger, bitterness)
  • active avoidance of death reminders, like avoiding eating at a deceased loved one’s favorite restaurant
  • identity disruption, which involves feeling like a part of yourself has died
  • emotional numbness
  • reintegration difficulties, which is a failure to pursue interests or plan for the future
  • a sense that life is meaningless
  • severe loneliness or feelings of detachment from others
  • prolonged disbelief about the death

Prolonged grief disorder becomes diagnosable from 6 months to 1 year after the initial loss. It’s more common among people who have lost a loved one suddenly or violently.

A 2020 study suggests some differences in how men and women handle prolonged grief. Men tend to begin with more severe symptoms that decrease over time, while women tend to show increased grief reactions over time.

Yet, researchers in this study distinguished only between men and women and did not include participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

For a more complete picture of how people handle prolonged grief, more research is needed.

For some people, prolonged grief can lead to grief-related major depression. It’s important to reach out to a mental health professional if the symptoms of grief feel overwhelming.

Though grief can have a significant effect on the brain, these changes are temporary for most people. The brain is resilient and able to rebalance itself over time, even after very painful experiences.

If you feel like grief is overwhelming your ability to function, consider reaching out for help. A mental health professional can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms to keep grief from settling into depression.

The following may help assist in the overall healing process:

While prolonged grief can change the way you see the world and make regular day-to-day activities more difficult, there’s no science showing these effects are permanent.

There isn’t a specific timetable for grief, but many people begin to feel better after several months and will continue their healing journey throughout the years.

If you’re currently grieving a loved one, you’re not alone. More than 2.5 million people die every year in the United States, leaving behind a number of close friends and family.

Though the death of a loved one is intensely painful, the human brain is quite resilient and good at healing itself. It usually just takes some time for your cognition and memory to return to how they once were.

If you feel like your grief reactions are not improving over time, consider reaching out to a friend, family member, or therapist to help you through the grieving journey.