Memory Loss During Grief

In the last 15 months, I have had the privilege of talking and listening to many people on this journey of grief.  One thing that seems to be constant with everyone I’ve listened to is the loss of memory. Not the memories created with their loved ones, but simply remembering everyday things.

Why did I come into the kitchen? What was I going to do? Where did I put my keys?

Those forgetful moments are normal when your mind and heart are grieving.  I remember several times I was driving in the car and forgot where I was going!  There were mornings I couldn’t find my glasses and would search the entire house, only to have my husband gently say to me, “Honey, you’re wearing your glasses.”

Often, I felt I was going crazy.  I forgot birthdays. I forgot phone numbers. It seemed like I would forever be going through life, trying to remember what I was supposed to do each day.

I’ve listened to many people describe the same things.  I am so glad I’m there to reassure them that it is normal.

I developed a few strategies to help me remember the daily things I needed to do.  Some may think I went to the extreme to remember, but  it worked for me.

I found several little notebooks, all a different color. I labeled the notebooks with important things I needed to remember. One was labeled” Doctor.” Another was labeled “Marriage.” One was labeled “Work.”

I probably had 8-10 of these little notebooks, and I kept them close to me at all times. I’d write down appointments in the corresponding notebook. If I had questions for the doctor, I’d write those questions in that notebook. It was my way of organizing my brain!  It helped.

As the months went on after my sister’s murder, I often felt like there was too much going on in my mind.  It was overwhelming to say the least.  At one of my support group meetings, I remember describing it as if I had a twelve-burner stove and on each burner was a big pot of soup that needed to be stirred. I felt like I was bouncing back and forth between those pots, stirring and stirring. It was exhausting and I was always afraid I was forgetting something.

My support group leader helped me immensely with those pots. Together, we sat down and talked about each pot of soup. Which pots could I really control, which pots belonged on the front burners of the stove?  I slowly learned to let some of the pots remain on the back burner and not worry about them. I’d tell myself they were slowly simmering and were fine left unattended.  I learned to let go of those pots that I couldn’t control. I learned to prioritize which pots needed my attention. I learned to de clutter my mind.

So if you are forgetting while grieving, you are not going crazy. Find what works for you to de-clutter your mind.  I am happy to say, that I am down to only a few notebooks.

In this new year, my goal is to keep my lists to a minimum.  I’m learning to let go of the small stuff.  When I empty my mind of all that small stuff, it’s amazing how the wonderful memories of my sister fill my mind.

Shirley Wiles Dickinson

Shirley Wiles-Dickinson

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Shirley Wiles-Dickinson is the youngest of four girls in a Midwestern family. In 2009, her sister was brutally murdered. She writes about her experience following this loss. To reach her, e-mail [email protected]

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  • Harriet Hodgson says:

    I like your notebook idea and thank you for sharing it. Four of my family members, including my daughter, died within nine months. Grieving for multiple losses made me forgetful. In fact, I remember little about the year. Thankfully, I wrote articles about loss, grief and recovery and can read them to refresh my memory. As time passes, I think the wonderful memories of your sister will become treasures.
    Harriet Hodgson

  • Shirley Wiles-Dickinson says:

    Harriet, I am so sorry that you’ve suffered so many losses. I’m glad my notebook idea may be of some use for you. It sure helped me. I kept a journal for the first year or so and like you, I can go back and read the journals to refresh my memory.
    May we both find a little more peace and hope in this new year.
    Shirley

  • julie says:

    Hi Shirley,
    I am sorry for the violent death of your sister and appreciate your sharing. One of the most stressful life events we endure is the death of someone we love and when this death is violent or unexpected it is even more stressful. A classic symptom of extreme stess is forgetfulness. For others it is the loss of creativity and articulation. Our minds are not clear and sharp. We have tremendous processing to do. Journaling and prioritizing are terrific suggestions and just remembering to be gentle with ourselves is critical.
    Thank you for your post.

  • Angela says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am so sorry for your loss. Reading this helped me to know that I’m not crazy for going through this memory loss. I really like your notebook idea.

  • James says:

    Thanks for sharing. I lost both of my parents, 3 uncles and 2 close friends the last year. I had to take a leave of absense from work due to my forgetfulness/lack of concentration. I forget conversations and tasks I had not long after I have done them. I was wondering how long this lasts. I’ve heard about a year (give or take as it varies from griever to griever). I just had my mom’s 1 year anniversary a week ago and my dad passed just 3 months ago. I just want to be ‘normal’ or ‘myself’ again. I do the notebook reminders and they do help. Thanks.

  • Amy says:

    thank you for writting this, and I really do like the idea. I find myself completely forgetting things contantly. I’m just about to get married, I work a carzy schedule, we lost my father not even a year ago, and my brother shortly before that. Maybe its my minds way of telling me to relax and take some time to process everything.

  • Thomas Smith says:

    So glad I found some evidence of what feels to me a kind of madness. A year almost to the day since my wife and soul mate for 36 years died of advanced Breast Cancer, I feel my head is so full of so much that it will burst. In the supermarket today I completely lost track of where I had left the shopping trolley – my mind went completely blank – I could have physically dropped to my knees and sobbed. After a year of terrible grieving and many weeks caring at home for my courageous wife before she died, I truly wonder what has happened to my mind.

    I posted on this remarkable site in March about a month after she died. I had some wonderful, kind responses. I know I have made some progress, albeit a little, and have never avoided giving vent to the incredible weight and sadness that loss places on your soul. Tears are truly never far away even after a year although I can truly say I have tried my best, as I know my dear wife would have wanted.
    I have always used a diary and memory jotters for most of my life and this has helped, but sometimes I will completely forget the purpose of my journey to the kitchen or bedroom and stand and stare at the wall hoping that it will suddenly come to me.
    On two occasions I contemplated ending my life but know that my wife would have been furious with me and I always want to be true to her memory.

    God help me I suppose – time will tell. I know I am somewhat depressed and accept that this is normal. I hope family and friends understand this too and accept that the bereaved carry an enormous, mostly unseen weight where a kind of curtain divides us from the rest of the world.

    God bless everybody who travel this path and who have the courage to talk about it on this site.

  • Kathy says:

    Thank you… It’s been almost 3 years since I lost my husband and mother 6 months apart and I am still dealing with horrible memory loss. I missed an awards ceremony this morning that my 12 year old son received boy of the year award. How could I forget that and so many other things when it’s been 3 years?

    • Shirley says:

      Kathy,
      Tomorrow will mark the 5 year mark of my sisters death. After five years, I still forget things. I’m not sure if it’s because I have so much on my mind or if it’s just that I’m getting old. With the anniversary of her death upon me, I have no trouble recalling everything that occurred 5 years ago. I remember all of it like it was yesterday. Yet, if I don’t leave myself notes all over the house and in the car, I’ll forget a doctor’s appointment. Hang in there, buy some post it notes and I hope you find some peace in your heart and mind.

      Shirley

  • Julia says:

    I seem to be loosing my mind, i have just lost my son in an accident. Grieving

  • Debbie says:

    Six months ago I lost my beautiful 31 year old son to melanoma. Today I missed my 3 year old granddaughter’s Christmas program. I totally lost it. This comes after several missed doctors appointments and most of the forgetfulness you mentioned above. My daughter sent me your post and it has helped me relax knowing memory loss is often associated with grief. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Nikki says:

    Its been 37 years since i lost my husband and my memory of life before his death is still patchy…..ive lost so much of my lifes memory…i can recall certain things but thats all…its lost….

  • Lucy says:

    Your ltter and othets sharing has helped to cope with my forgetfulness last june i lost my daughter on cancer and in august my 13 yr old granddaughter committed suicide. An then my other daughter was diagnosed with breastcancer she is ok but all this is making me forgetful in everyday things