By Susan Drevitch Kelly

Life Transition Coach

I recently watched “Queen Bees,” a 2021 movie inspired by the true story of the grandmother of producer Harrison Powell and the struggles she faced as a widow and suddenly being alone and on her own. Her story focuses on making the very difficult decision of whether she should sell the marital home that she and her recently deceased husband had built and lived in for most of their married life and move into a retirement community, something her family was strongly encouraging her to do. [Note: The movie stars Ellen Burstyn, Ann Margaret, and James Caan, has a happy ending, and is worth watching!]

The movie, laced with light and tasteful humor, addresses some of the many issues that grievers confront upon the death of their spouse. Suddenly single, there are major challenges in confronting serious choices to be made, and the accompanying feelings of being overwhelmed by these difficult decisions.

So let’s take a look at why it is so difficult to make decisions when you are grieving by looking at your brain on grief, or what we call “grief brain.”

We know that grief impacts us on all levels: mental, spiritual, emotional and physical. Specifically, the impact that grief has on your mental well-being can create myriad issues: troubles falling asleep, concentrating, focusing, remembering simple things, and difficulty making even the smallest of decisions. It is upsetting and very troubling when you reflect on how effective and efficient you used to be in managing your daily to-dos and schedule, and in making decisions prior to the death of your loved one. That innate ability suddenly seems to disappear. You begin to feel like you are treading water and trying to just stay afloat. The simplest decisions can bring on feelings of being overwhelmed.

Western society, in general, tends to want to rush us through our grief; sometimes your own family and close friends almost “wish” you to get over your grief much sooner than you are able or ready to. This may prompt you to move faster than you should on making life-changing choices, like selling your marital home, downsizing and parting ways with many items you cherish or aren’t quite ready to give away, or moving in with your children.

Sometimes even making changes in your daily routine, weekly schedule, or lifestyle, or saying yes to every invitation, may seem to be the answer as you look for ways to escape the pain, profound sadness, and extreme loneliness of your grief.

The death of a loved one is one of the greatest stressors we face as humans. So, it’s important to understand that the brain reacts to your grief in the same way it handles any major stressful situation you encounter. Psychologists view grief as an emotional trauma to the brain, and when you experience any traumatic or stressful situation, the brain goes into a survival mode.

What does this mean?

• 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/decision-making regions (your prefrontal cortex).

• As a result, your prefrontal cortex becomes less active, and your brain focuses on survival.

• Higher level thinking, such as problem-solving and decision-making, takes a back seat.

As a griever, you are essentially in a prolonged state of stress and so your brain is in a prolonged state of this fight-or-flight state. Without taking action to relieve and counterbalance this ongoing state of stress, your ability to heal and recover from your loss will unfortunately be a longer and slower process.

Research has found that the same activities recommended to ease the stress you may encounter in life due to conflicts with relationships, your family, friends, work, or other causes are just as useful to relieve the stress caused by grief.

Some helpful activities include meditation, yoga, breath work, exercise, walking, massage, tai chi, and aromatherapy. In addition, activities that engage the brain and activate your higher thinking/solution-solving skills can be helpful, such as board or card games, reading, listening to music, drumming, dancing, singing, painting, learning to play an instrument, knitting, sewing, crafts, volunteering, or learning something new.

So how do you get started on doing something to heal your “grief brain?” I encourage you to check out your local senior center newsletter, which is brimming with all types of activities, including the ones suggested in this article.

As a final note, the author will be offering an interactive workshop, “How Do You Heal a Broken Heart? Understanding Your Grief,” at the Cohasset Senior Center on August 13 at 1 p.m. Pre-registration is required. Contact Patty Smith or Tricia Faletra for additional information at 781-383-9112.

About the Author: Susan Drevitch Kelly has dual BS degrees in Biology and Chemistry, Summa cum Laude, Suffolk University; MA degree and Post-graduate studies in Psychobiology, Harvard University; and over 40 years of experience guiding private clients and workshop groups through major life transitions caused by change and loss. She is passionate about helping people redefine themselves and discover new meaning and purpose in their lives. Susan facilitates two grief support groups at the Scituate Senior Center: Grieve Not alone for recent loss and Riding the Wave for continuing grief. She is also available for private grief counseling sessions. She can be reached at