Avoid Making Big Decisions After Experiencing a Death

Mallory J Greene
Mallory J Greene
June 12th 2024 - 9 minute read
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Grief disrupts our cognitive and emotional balance, leading to impulsive decisions. Experts advise patience, support, and delaying major changes to foster healing and avoid regret. Learn more.

In the aftermath of losing someone deeply precious, the world feels distinctly off its axis. The death of a close loved one shatters the foundations we've constructed our lives upon, thrusting us onto uncharted terrain rife with uncertainty. Grief descends as a disorienting fog, adrift in which even the most basic routines and decisions suddenly become muddled.  

It's during these emotionally volcanic periods that we become incredibly vulnerable to making rash, impulsive choices that would have been entirely out of character at any other juncture. Grief quite literally compromises our neurological ability for rational decision-making, higher reasoning and weighing consequences. Even the most normally grounded people can find themselves careening towards hasty reinventions of their lives that ultimately lead to more destabilization rather than clarity.  

The biochemical reason is rooted in how our brains respond to trauma and tumult. In the aftermath of a loved one's death, our prefrontal cortex - the control center responsible for logic, focus, judgement and executive functioning - effectively short-circuits while we're flooded with intense emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, regret and fear. We essentially enter an "emotionally hijacked" state where mental resources get diverted en masse to simply coping with psychological overwhelm.  

Meanwhile, the limbic system that controls our primal motivational drives and fight-or-flight impulses gets amplified into hyperdrive to deal with existential threats. There's a "deep biological override" that curtails our normal discernment channels, as Dr. Mary-Frances O'Connor, a psychologist specializing in grief counseling, explains it.

"People essentially lose the part of their brain that makes thoughtful choices and considers consequences," Dr. O'Connor notes. "Instead they're reverting to instinctual habits and short-term self-preservation on a neurological level. It's the mind's way of trying to cope and figure out 'How do I feel safe again?'"

This disorienting cognitive and emotional state becomes a perfect recipe for making decisions rooted in destabilized thinking - choices we'll potentially regret immensely once the fog of grief starts to clear. The destabilization stems from our desire to escape discomfort and recapture a sense of control, however impulsive or short-sighted those efforts may be.

For the newly-bereaved, that impulse often manifests in rushing to radically alter aspects of their external lives as a salve. Drastic career pivots, picking up and relocating, prematurely discarding beloved mementos, or scrambling to sever financial ties and responsibilities can all flow from the desperate yearning to discard the current reality that no longer computes without their loved one present.

"It's very common for people in early acute stages of grief to just want to burn everything to the ground and start completely over, often to their regret later on," notes O'Connor. "I routinely see clients who got remarried way too quickly, hastily moved states, bought new houses, changed careers or upended their lives in other ways thinking it would accelerate healing. The reality is we're simply not capable of seeing clearly or being intentional about those level of choices when existentially destabilized."

Michelle Petrowski-Molina, a grief recovery specialist, has witnessed clients' decision-making abilities distorted by grief myopia countless times. "People in those white-hot early stages will often make bold, reactive choices fueled by the desire to extinguish pain or numb themselves," she says. "They'll pursue self-destructive coping habits, fritter away life savings on short-term indulgences, or sacrifice family, financial and emotional stability chasing mirages of relief from the anguish - all from a compromised mental space."  

The allure of instant alleviation from the languishing, dense shroud of sadness can also lead people to vastly underestimate the true timeline of the grieving process and its cognitive impacts. Despite evidence indicating most people grapple with acute grief for well over a year, our culture still harbors collective delusions that it's a temporary state to swiftly resume living life "as normal."

"There's this pervasive pressure and faulty assumption that grief is something to power through with sheer force of will and get 'back to normal' functioning in a matter of weeks or months," observes grief counselor Heather Stang. "But the reality is the neurological and emotional effects can continue for a year or more, and that unrealistic timetable often compels people to make hasty decisions they come to regret because their pain inspired too narrow a perspective."

Petrowski-Molina has seen this habitually play out in clients' careers and relationships if they don't intentionally prioritize healing first. "People will quit jobs, relationships, or try to forcibly rewrite every part of their narrative still in a total fog," she says. "Months or even years later, once they've done work to regain their equilibrium, I see them feeling newly destabilized because their old life infrastructure is gone based on rushed choices they were just too impaired to think through initially."

In many cases, these missteps start a domino effect of compounding problems created from the original wounds of loss. New upheavals like job changes or breakups can introduce fresh grief spirals that keep people trapped in perpetual cycles of pain, numbing and disequilibrium. These cycles too often lead to missed opportunities for emotional resolution and post-traumatic growth because proper healing work was never focused on in the midst of all the frenzied life changes.

That's what makes the window directly after a death so utterly precarious yet teeming with potential for consequential decision-making, whether by action or paralysis. In their reeling and anguished states, people often accidentally make themselves even more overwhelmed by over-committing to irrevocable life upheavals before they have proper vantage points.

"We can get so preoccupied with wanting to fast forward out of the chaos and angst of grief that we're willing to make gambits that ultimately undermine our own wellbeing," Stang acknowledges. "But of course, grief won't just be rushed through. It demands being felt, metabolized, and integrated into a person's new worldview going forward."

Which is why grief experts' universal advice tends to be conservative incrementalism rather than radically disrupting life foundations too hastily. Aside from basic obligations and responsibilities that must be tended to, they emphasize chicly pumping the brakes and delaying seismic shifts until one's cognitive grip strengthens.

The general rule of thumb is a minimum 6 months delay on making any major life-altering decisions when possible. "We recommend creating a kind of 'Demilitarized Zone' around that 6 month mark where no permanent reinventions can happen, big purchases, or weighty obligations be incurred unless absolutely required," says Petrowski-Molina. "It's all about protecting a client from their own biologically destabilized thought processes until they can regain sounder judgment."

During that extended runway, the emphasis instead shifts to stress testing any intense urges or desires for transformation and radically accepting internal changes already reshaping one's identity. Experts suggest meditation, journaling, engaging an impartial listener, stress management, and any other stabilizing practices to pause and turn inward while grieving's turbulence gradually wanes.

Once immediate fight-or-flight reflexes subside, people can begin distinguishing between compulsions sparked by the loss itself versus authentic stirrings to realign aspects of their lives. In those cases, experts still advocate for careful, incremental risk-taking rather than scorched earth reversions.

"There's nothing wrong with reevaluating priorities, downsizing possessions or living situations, switching careers or making fresh starts to honor the emotional growth these experiences spark – but we want to do it from a place of empowerment and thoughtfulness, not desperation or fear," notes Stang. "What we often discover is that most of those big life areas still enrich and fulfill people once grief becomes more integrated into their mindsets. But it takes having patience with the process before you know what to shift versus what to preserve."

The vital element tends to be having a ballasted support network and resources in place to prop up executive functioning while you regain steady footing. This could mean assigning trusted decision-makers for practical and financial matters, building in routine check-ins with friends and therapists, or simply automating payments and life logistics as much as possible to impose order and mitigate impulsivity.  

Grief's disruptive impacts can steal a person's ability to be fully "in the driver's seat" of their own lives for long stretches. The idea is buttressing outside supports to temporarily take the wheel until they naturally restore clearer thinking and emotional regulation.

Engaging self-awareness and avoiding shame around limitations during the grieving window is also critical, experts emphasize. Even the most diligent people can find themselves forgetting bills, neglecting hygiene and healthy routines, struggling with concentration or even making imple decisions like what to eat or wear each day. Normalizing these experiences helps alleviate the added burden of guilt or frustration, acknowledging that cognitive and emotional resources are simply redirected during intense grief.

Experts like Dr. O'Connor advocate for cultivating self-compassion and lowering personal expectations during this period. "Recognize that this is an extraordinary time that calls for extraordinary patience with yourself," she advises. "It's okay to not be at your best. It's okay to need more help and to take longer to do things that once came easily. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you'd offer a dear friend going through the same ordeal."

Gradually, as the intense early stages of grief start to recede, individuals often find themselves with renewed clarity and strength. It's in these moments of emerging resilience that more grounded decisions can be made, supported by a clearer vision of what truly honors their loved one and aligns with their long-term well-being.

"Grief ultimately reshapes us," Petrowski-Molina concludes. "But the goal is to let it be a transformation that enriches our lives and relationships rather than one that leads to more loss. By approaching grief with patience, support, and intentionality, we can navigate this profound terrain in ways that foster healing and growth, rather than additional regret and pain."

Thus, while the journey through grief is uniquely personal and unpredictable, the overarching guidance remains consistent: prioritize healing, seek support, delay major decisions, and approach oneself with boundless compassion. In doing so, the path through grief, while arduous, can eventually lead to a place of deeper understanding, renewed purpose, and lasting peace.