Grief and Concentration: 8 tips for coping with an inability to focus

You’re sitting at your desk at work and suddenly realize you have been staring at the wall, lost in thought or memories or pain, for the last hour and you’re late for a meeting. You’re driving home and drive right through a stop sign that you dutifully stop at every day.  You put dinner in the oven and almost 2 hours later when you smell something burning, you realize you forgot to pull it out.  You come home one day to find a notice on your door: you forgot to pay your rent for the last two months.  You had the money, you just forgot to pay!  You get up and walk into another room to do something or get something and by the time you get there, you have no idea what it was. And on and on and on . . . any of these sound familiar?

One common question we get here at WYG is how to manage the complete inability to focus that can come with grief.  After a death, constant and overwhelming distraction is one of the most common pieces of “evidence” people cite when explaining that they think they are going totally crazy!  So before we go any further, let’s clear one thing up, grief and concentration don’t mix well.  That is not a sign that you are losing it.  I promise.  Struggling to concentrate is very normal soon after a loss.  It is simply a sign that your brain is completely consumed by something painful, overwhelming, and life-changing.

That said if the inability to focus keeps up for an extended period of time or is interfering with your life in an unmanageable way (for example, you are at risk of losing your job or you can’t care for your children) you should seek professional help from a therapist right away.  Otherwise, some basic tips and tools will probably be enough to help you over the hurdle. Though we certainly don’t believe time heals all wounds, we do know that time helps a lot with this grief and concentration thing.  It takes time for your brain to adjust to a new reality and the completely different world that exists after your loss.  There are emotions you are processing, fears and anxieties, secondary losses, and countless other things your brain is trying to manage, but that does get easier with time.  In the meantime, we have some tips and suggestions for coping with grief and concentration.  We hope you’ll add your own to the comments to keep this conversation going.

#1 Stop beating yourself up!

Seriously.  We know it is hard when you have always been a focused, fabulous, functional person.  But grief is the worst and it really messes with your brain.  You aren’t a failure for being distracted.  You’re a normal, wonderful, griever who is just doing your best to cope.  So in those moments when you have lost all focus, try to give yourself some permission and space to know it’s okay.  You are still a fabulous person and it might just take some time and a little work to get that focus back.


#2 Journal

Journaling may sound like a weird tip for managing grief and concentration, but sometimes the problem is that you have so many thoughts swimming in your head.  You just can’t possibly keep them all in there and hope to focus.  Getting some of those thoughts out in a journal can (at least temporarily) clear some space to let you focus for a while.  A regular journaling practice is great, but even just writing out some of the things consuming you when you are feeling unfocused can provide a temporary reprieve.  If you are looking to start or beef up your grief journaling practice, we have a self-guided grief journaling e-course you can check out.

#3 Visualization and Meditation

Learning to meditate has countless physical and psychological benefits, one of which is getting more control over your thoughts and your relationship with your thoughts.  When you are feeling constantly unfocused and distracted, it is a tool that can help you move the needle.    Teaching you to meditate is beyond the scope of this post, but you can find some more info and resources here.

Visualization is a technique that can also be helpful in setting your consuming thoughts aside for a while.  Now, that might sound like avoidance and we don’t usually advocate avoidance! But in some cases, you need to compartmentalize in order to take care of the practicalities of life.  When consuming thoughts are distracting you, take a minute to notice what you’re being consumed by and visualize yourself putting the thoughts in a box or a room.  You can shut the lid or the door, telling yourself you will come back to attend to those thoughts later, in a time and space you allow.  If you journal, you may do the same when you close the journal, deliberately keeping your thoughts contained to the pages until you can revisit them in a space that doesn’t have such a negative impact.

#4 Write everything down

This is a basic, 101 tip, but it is an especially important one when you’re grieving.  If, before the loss, you were able to keep your life organized in your head it can be hard to accept that isn’t possible anymore.  Your head is now consumed with a zillion other thoughts and anxieties, so it can be a big help to write things down to help you keep track of even the basic things.  You may not have to create endless to-do lists forever, but in the short term, it can help!

#5 Sleep and eat

One of the challenges in grief is that symptoms stack up on each other and can impact one another.  Early in grief your sleep and appetite can get out of wack – insomnia can become an unwelcome guest and you may lose all interest in eating.  When it comes to focus and concentration, lack of sleep and food are an issue even without grief.  Layer grief on top of that and you might have a mental meltdown.  If you are looking for tips, check out this post on grief and getting a good night’s sleep.  Make sure you are meeting your basic caloric and vitamin/mineral needs, even if you aren’t excited about eating.  Yes, this can mean forcing yourself to eat and make healthy food choices.  Here are some tips for healthy eating from one of our favorite wellness gurus.

#6 Just do it

Sometimes focus and concentration are the issues when a task is already underway, but it can also come in to play when deciding whether and when to do something. Sometimes we say to ourselves, “oh, I’m too distracted or unfocused to do anything now, I’ll start later or tomorrow”. By the time you get to it you are so close to the deadline that you are feeling, even more, overwhelmed and stressed, which can make it even harder to focus.  It is a vicious cycle.  It can be best to just start, even if there is some distraction involved.  Those messages telling you not to try come from a little thing we like to call grief-brain, and if you just ignore it sometimes you’ll surprise yourself!

#7 Take breaks and use alarms

There are a ton of productivity techniques and apps with all sorts of different philosophies and systems.  We don’t endorse a particular one for helping with time and focus, but many share one thing in common –they encourage setting time to work and time for breaks.  Some use alarms to help you stay on task with your work time, then let you get some space.  Scheduling time this way helps some grievers balance the emotions and distractions by creating a space for them.  These alarms can also help if you have gotten off track and distracted to get you back on track.  Though we don’t endorse any of these specifically, and encourage you to research which one might be the best fit for you, the Pomodoro technique is a well-known option that can give you the idea of how this works.


#8 Solicit support

If you realize your inability to concentrate is interfering with your day to day life, get some help.  This may be help from friends, family, and co-workers, it could be professional help from a therapist, or ideally a combination of both.  If you realize your work is being significantly impacted, talk to your supervisor and HR.  If you are a student and you see your schoolwork suffering, talk with your teachers/professors and school counselors right away to look for support and solutions.  If you want some ideas on how to find help within your support system, check out this post.

Keep the convo going: If you have struggled with grief, concentration, and lack of focus, leave a comment to let others know how you’ve been coping!  And, as always, subscribe to get our weekly grief support posts right to your inbox.

July 10, 2018

23 responses on "Grief and Concentration: 8 tips for coping with an inability to focus"

  1. I have just been sitting doing and thinking nothing at all, just feeling overwhelmed , and googled that, and found I’m not alone and that my foggy thinking is ok. I lost my husband 8 months ago. He was Spanish and we live in Spain. I wanted desperately to go to the US, be with my kids, see a counselor but bureaucracy here is so complicated and his children are making my life so difficult. I obsess about future problems and doubt every decision. I like the ideas here and will try to move my life forward. I go back Dec 15 and tho I’ll have to return to take care of the problems, it’s a start. Thanks everone, for sharing

  2. I lost my father on March 09 almost three years ago. The first year I was unaffected and did everything but mourn him and now it’s my senior year and I’ve only just begun the grieving period. I can’t begin to describe how helpful this article is to me. I’ve sat down with a pencil in my hand to only realize I spent three hours merely staring blankly at my homework.

  3. Reading these I want to wrap my arms around you all and comfort you in your grief. I am reassured when I read about the trouble focusing and getting back to usual living.
    My mom died about 6 weeks ago and I was her primary caregiver and a nurse by profession. I knew it was coming but it still hurts. Having trouble getting going for thanksgiving as we are hosting family.
    I have much to be thankful for but Thanksgiving was her holiday that we spent together.
    I know I will get through this and it will get better. It helps to remind myself I’m normal.

  4. I lost my husband 4 months ago on the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. He had cancer for 22 months. I still today cannot believe that he’s not around and I won’t see him again. We had so many plans for retirement after I would stop working. Now I have no plans, I’m the odd number going out with friends, I have no one to talk to at night to talk about my day. My work is suffering because I cannot concentrate. I just relive those last few weeks with him. Probably everyone on this site feels the same way. I feel like I need to go to a therapist but can’t bring myself to make the call.

  5. I lost my partner and soul mate 3 weeks ago,I found him on the bed,he’d had a heart attack. We have a 4 and a half year old son who needs me,thank goodness I have something to keep me going,but it is so hard! I still can’t get my head around the fact that I’ll never see him again. The pain is crippling. I’m going to try writing things down. It feels like this isn’t really happening to me, like I’m watching someone else’s life.

  6. Hello, I am new here and found the information interesting and helpful. Even after 2 1/2 months, I am still crying after losing my lady friend that I have known and that I have worked for, for 13 years. Although she had many health problems, her time was coming to an end. I guess I just feel like I never wanted that end to come and it eventually did July 28th. My heart is broken. This is all I can say. I feel like my life has been turned upside down. I have just started counseling therapy and only had one session so far.

  7. I can’t wait to have the time to read this. I am feeling so lost right now. Already suffering with (diagnosed) ADHD, depression and anxiety I feel like a huge spotlight is on me. I am finding myself unable to express myself because my mind is racing with contradictions – SOME of my forgetfulness IS because of the loss I’ve experienced but I’ve never been good at remembering things. I fear that people will think that I am trying to blame my disorganization on grief – and to me, that would be an insult to my father’s memory.

  8. I’m trying desperately to cope with the sudden death of my life partner, the love of my last life to accidental overdose of pills and alcohol a month ago. This article has reassured me that I am not alone in my struggle. I can only hope and pray for answers and absolution. Great article..Much love.

  9. I lost my husband three weeks ago. He woke up every morning singing. He had hundreds of friends and always made friends with everyone he met. His faith was strong, people always asked his advice, he wouldn’t readily give it, but if he did he expected you to follow through. He was an incredible man and I only hope I can continue his legacy and see him again someday. Leaning on friends and family is crucial for me. Working is essential. I firmly believe you will make it through and make your loved ones proud. Read the famous Tecumsah poem; we should all live like the poem says, like my husband lived.

  10. My father very unexpectedly died last year. Immediately after receiving the news,my hands started to tremble and shake out of control.
    That was just one problem.
    And that lasted for a good week or so,possibly even longer. I was having great difficulty texting my friends back home,since it was close to impossible to type anything. That problem has since stopped, although every now and then it still happens.
    Another problem which is still a problem is the lack of concentration and focus, and forgetfulness.
    I just seem to be muddling through these issues,at times,though,it seems to be getting better,at turtle speed,but slowly getting better. It annoys me that my terrific reading habits have all but gone,however, it is improving slowly. Patience is a requirement now,and so is getting back to a normal routine quickly as soon as it is possible to do so. I have found that writing an imaginary letter to my dad has helped. I actually write a letter to my dad,a private letter,one that will not be shared with anyone else,-it’s s just for you(unless you want to share it),-and I “talk”to my dad. I have honestly shared my feelings about the events that occurred the week that he died.I write a description of what happened,and so forth.I express my honest feelings about how I felt at the time and how I felt about what was going on. I tell my dad that I love him. This letter can be an open letter, meaning you don’t have to finish it.As a suggestion, you can stop writing, put the letter away somewhere private ,and then revisit it later. Maybe adding more if you choose to do so. I found this to be helpful,but that only an idea.Whatever, however you cope with this awful new reality, please stay loved and positive and patient. It really will get better.

  11. I just lost my 19 year old son one month ago. I saw him last on June 11, 2018. He had an unintended overdose with alcohol and xanex, while over a “friend’s” house playing video games. My son was on his way to do great things with his life but he was with the wrong crowd, judgement was impaired, and he was given a fatal combination. I miss his sweet person, his smile, his wit, his sarcasm, all of it. I am torn between despair and hope that I can someday be happy again in the face of this tragedy. I am totally preoccupied with his memories, that fatal night at his “friend’s” house, why he would do what he did, guilt, sorrow, feelings of abandonment, and a yearning to see him again. He was innocent. He made a mistake and never got the chances so many others have gotten to correct their lives and figure things out. I’m obsessed with the “why” and “what ifs”. The focus is just not there for work. I try but it gets muddled by my constant thoughts. Maybe compartmentalizing things will work and meditation. I will try. Thanks for the article. Here’s to hoping and praying for a better tomorrow.

  12. It was nice that you mentioned getting a decent amount of sleep and eating healthy food is one way to manage grief. I will be sure to add this to the list of things I will ask my brother to do since he is struck with grief since his pet died. However, since I want him back to his old self soon, I will also take him to a professional for a more active approach. Thanks.

  13. Ditch those annoying video clips. No one wants to even scroll by those to try
    read the article.

  14. Thank you for this article, it has been two years and the grief is like it was yesterday, and on top of that the divorce last year. My grief brain makes it hard for anyone to understand me, I feel like I was taken advantage of and that no one will understand me, or no one will ever be enough for me. I need proof , or affirmation all the time to know that people understand.
    but I kinda feel a little better , knowing im not the only one , I find myself having TO WRITE Myself notes, I have three schedules, and a calendar to remind myself . I think this is something no one understands. And I should be more gentle on myself because death is something we will never understand why our children go , and why they get sick, but I have to remind myself that , I am not alone though I feel lonely all the time, and many friends care for me, I have to allow myself to grieve too and know its ok.

  15. After reading this article I’m relieved to see I’m slightly on top of things regarding my grief brain. I no longer pretend that I remember. I’ve admitted that to family and friends. I’ve asked for patience, not sympathy for my grief brain. I use lists for everything I need to remember to do, places I need to remember to go and lists to remember to take my lists. I use timers and alarms to keep me on task for the days I want to sit and stare off into space. I have never been good at meditating but I’ve recently joined a yoga class. I’m hoping in time I’ll get back what I lost with the death of my son. Some days I am very discouraged at the loss of what I always felt was my clear, level headed thinking and getting things done. Some days I just give in and let the grief brain take over. Thank you for another good and encouraging article.

  16. Reading all of these posts have given me the push I’ve needed to put my, at this time, somewhat uncontrolled , gut wrenching grief.
    It is now 10 years since I lost my only child, my 31 year old precious daughter. I am not one who dwells on dates/ anniversaries of losses, nor do I ignore them. For some reason, this one blindsided me! Tears, sadness, isolation,totally distracted, etc. I saw my daughter for the last time Aug 11, 2007 and found her on the 13th. She left two beautiful precious boys, 5 and 11. I am raising my boys wo are my greatest blessing. We all have had counseling which included the Children’s Bereavement Center and private counseling. I am well aware that working with and handling personal grief is a life long journey. My boys and I speak openly about their mom and dad. (My son-in-law died suddenly in ’04.) I have allowed myself to feel the pain, sadness, joy, relief, anger, etc. that comes with losing a loved one. I have always been able to deal with it in a controlled way, publicly and privately. This time I can’t seem to get rid of it. Back track . . . from 2004 to 2007, I lost my husband, daughter, son-in-law and mom. I realize that all of these losses have had an impact on my brain. I have had a blessed life and, through my faith, I believe that I am exactly where I am supposed to be and doing what I am blessed to be doing. Absolutely not complaining or asking for sympathy, just wanting and needing some suggestions on coping. (I definitely am going to get professional help. ).
    Thanks for letting me unload.

  17. Thank you for this and the comments. Lost our son 5 weeks ago. I want and need to get back to work! I can’t even think or make a commitment without my heart rate pounding, I shake. People tell me time, I need this to go away. I know the loss and pain will never go away.

  18. Thank you for this and the comments. Lost our son 5 months ago. I want and need to get back to work! I can’t even think or make a commitment without my heart rate pounding, I shake. People tell me time, I need this to go away. I know the loss and pain will never go away.

  19. Thanks for the info. I am almost 5 years into my grief and instead of slowly returning to my organized, self motivated self, I still get easily overwhelmed and do nothing. I sit and read blogs, stare at Facebook, or play games on my phone for entirely too long. Then I beat myself up for not doing what I “should” be doing.
    I long to return to that part of my old self that was able to handle the accomplishment on which I thrive.

  20. I feel like I can’t move I have been asked to clean out my craft room so they can install some shelves for me. I have been working on it for a moth or more the other day my sister said she wants the room cleaned out so she can put the shelves in. To be definit I proupsly didn’t do it . It’s like my sister and daughter just want to give or throw away my things . I lost my brother then my son 19 days apart , then a 9 month old puppy and 13 yr old dog . I don’t want to lose my crafts my livelihood . It’s frustrating that they want to move on. But I am not ready it’s going on 7 months now. I go to my water arobics class come home and take care of my disable husband, that is hoping to be with his son everyday .

  21. Yes I agree those video clips that keep playing are very distracting.

  22. This is a great article and timely. I find myself struggling to execute much now that I’m unemployed and at home. One small piece of feedback – for those of us struggling with concentration due to grief, the automatically replaying video giphs in this article are terribly distracting. A static photo or illustration would make it a lot easier to read the article. Thank you, E

  23. This article has some very practical applications to help those with grief brain. I can certainly identify with the time lapse which I call, The Middle. In this place is where I began journaling. Sometimes I do nothing at all but mostly it is where I try to understand the before events or try to find the answers to living in the after. The location of the middle was originally literally on the middle landing of the staircase that lead down to where I found my son suspended by belts tied to the pipes above him. The stairs leading up is a place where everything was still status quo. The middle has now moved to my car, to the grocery store or any place that I am. I created a private Facebook page to unload some of my thoughts to lighten the weight of my overloaded brain and heart. I do get relief, a reprieve even it’s for a brief moment. I seek professional help to process the trauma and the grief. I recognize that I cannot return to the former me. I have allowed myself to do nothing for long periods of time. My love and commitments allow me to accomplish many things even if I’m not totally “all there” in the process. The single most life sustaining support is my God who has surrounded me with a new community where I feel I am not alone. I have met some very beautiful people who I have never met before. We listen to one another and that is a great gift. We speak the names of our loved ones and talk about their life. I would have to say if there was one thing that keeps me in the prison of brain grief it is being with people you want me to go on as if nothing happened, to adopt to their idea of acceptance, to squeeze me back into skin that no longer fits the body and soul of a grieving mother. I have condensed what I need to concentrate on. Many of the activities that I thought once gave meaning to my life has been exposed and thus has been discarded. I’m thankful for people who write about the challenges of living with great loss. There is a mysterious healing that occurs when I can say, I am not alone, I’m not crazy I’m just on the new road that is being paved by each step.

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