You’re sitting at your desk at work and suddenly realize you have been staring at the wall—lost in thought or memories of pain—for the last hour and now 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 two hours later, realize you forgot to pull it out only when you smell something burning. 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 (e.g., you're at risk of losing your job, you can't care for your children, etc.), 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, to the completely different world that exists after your loss. There are conflicting emotions to process, fears and anxieties to cope with, secondary losses to navigate, 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's 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.
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. 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 how to meditate is beyond the scope of this post, but you can find some more information 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 you know we don’t usually advocate avoidance! But in some cases, you need to compartmentalize in order to take care of the practicalities of life (Read about Avoidance Coping vs. Grief Relief here). 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 concentration tip, but it's 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 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 (e.g., insomnia can become an unwelcome guest, you may lose all interest in eating, etc.). When it comes to focus and concentration, lack of sleep and food are an issue even without grief. Then layer grief on top of that, and you might have a mental meltdown.
If you are looking for tips, check out our post on getting a good night’s sleep while grieving. 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. You can read more about healthy eating while grieving here.
6. Just Do It
Sometimes, focus and concentration are the issues when a task is already underway... but they can also come into 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're feeling even more overwhelmed and stressed—which then can make it even harder to focus. It's a vicious cycle!
So what do we recommend you do? 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. 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: that is, they encourage setting time to work and time for breaks.
For example, some use alarms to help you balance staying on task with resting. Scheduling time this way helps some grievers cope with the emotions and distractions by creating space for them. These alarms can also help you back on track if you've gotten too distracted. We encourage you to research which method might be the best fit for you, but 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 also could be professional help from a therapist. Ideally, it's a combination of both.
If you realize your work is being significantly impacted, talk to your supervisor and/or human resources. You can read more about going back to work after a death here.
If you're a student and you see your schoolwork is suffering, talk with your teachers/professors and school counselors right away to look for support and solutions. You can read more about going back to school after a death here.
If you want some ideas on how to find help within your support system, check out this post.
Keep the conversation 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.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: