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.
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
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!