An Unspoken Source of Executive Dysfunction

An Unspoken Source of Executive Dysfunction: Grief and Loss

My personal definition for executive functioning is “purposeful action.” I’ll explain.

We need our brain’s executive function skills in order to accomplish anything. As a result, many internal and external factors can interfere with our executive functions. That might mean factors like:

  • Neurological conditions like ADD/ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Brain injuries
  • Age, both in young and older brains
  • Stressors in our environment can also negatively affect our executive functioning, which we have all experienced during the pandemic.

Faced with life-threatening situations, our emotional brain takes over, blocking access to our wise prefrontal cortex. We don’t think clearly or make good choices. We can feel stuck. These are the obvious sources of executive dysfunction. However, over years of my work with clients, I’ve learned to keep my eyes open for a source that is often not expressed out loud – grief.

Grief and Executive Function

In the dominant western culture, grief is a topic and an emotion we try to avoid. It can be bottled up under a stoic impulse to “get over it and move on.”

But it is not that simple. While we all grieve differently, with each confronted loss, a door to grief – both present and past – is opened. We can even become hyper-anxious contemplating a future death. When that happens, our executive function skills go offline.

Personal Losses and My Own Struggle
Rock with snoopy consoling his friend

A grieving friend found this painted rock on her porch.

In recent weeks I experienced the loss of four people within my inner circle of friends and family. I thought I was handling it all pretty well for a couple of weeks. However, grief always claims its time and for me, it came to a head on a Saturday morning.

Suddenly my grief over my mother’s death when I was just 21 came roaring out of my soul. After a major sobbing spell, the whole day felt like a fog, with spotty functioning. I felt like I was losing my mind.

By the next day, utterly exhausted, I finally had the clarity to connect my brain’s challenges to all of my recent losses.

It was around this time that an appropriate blog showed up in my inbox. Erin Walsh, of the Spark and Stitch Institute, wrote a valuable piece with the title: “Why We Shouldn’t Skip Over Grief and Grieving.” I highly recommend it, especially if you are working or living around children who have been impacted by loss. Her overview and advice align with what I have learned about grief over the years.

What We Can Do to Support Those in Grief:

  • Name it. Don’t pretend it isn’t there. Be a witness to the grief of others. Acknowledge that grief is a powerful emotion that interferes with executive functioning.
  • You can’t “fix” a grieving person. We can give them the space to talk about it if they want to. Listening is good. Normalize their responses. Normalize your own feelings too.
  • Activate your senses. To calm the power of grief, it is good to touch things, smell things, and look very carefully at the details of objects. Our sensory system gets us out of the dominance of our emotional brain. A mindful walk outside can be very helpful.
  • Be honest. Grief never truly disappears, but have hope that over time executive functioning skills will return.
  • Connect with a supportive community. Now is the time to reach out to old friends, to your religious community, to therapists. Whoever that is for you, lean into their wisdom and treasure them in the now.
  • Have compassion. Give people (and yourself) room to be offline when grief is dominating.
  • Understand that grief impairs our sense of the future. It can be difficult to think positively about the future. Patience. Little by little, enthusiasm for the future returns.

In all honesty, this month I intended to write a light, positive post about spring cleaning and executive functioning. This is not an easy blog topic, to write about or to read.

But in recent weeks, the pain of grief kept surfacing with my clients, my colleagues, my friends, my family, and in myself.

This is the blog I had to write because I am all about acknowledging and addressing the pain of executive dysfunction in our lives. When we own the source, when we name it, we can begin to move forward into purposeful lives. Grief, in all its forms, interferes with our executive functioning capacity.

If grief is surfacing in your world, be gentle with those who are grieving, be gentle with yourself. Little by little our hearts and brains adjust. Hopefully next April I can write a blog about the joy of Spring.

In the meantime, feel the hugs.


About the Author Marydee Sklar

Marydee Sklar is the president of Executive Functioning Success and the creator of the Seeing My Time Program® and the Set Up Success and Seeing My Time® planners. She is an educator and author of three books on executive functions, as well as a trainer and speaker. Marydee has more than twenty-five years of experience working with students and adults with executive function challenges.

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