How Does Grief Affect Decision Making?

Mallory J Greene
Mallory J Greene
June 14th 2024 - 6 minute read
Facebook Twitter Linkedin
A state of grief is a poor environment to make clear-headed decision making. Yet, we are inevitably faced with a flood of choices after death that require careful navigation. Learn about the effects of grief on decision-making and how counselling provide support.

Grief is one of the most profoundly destabilizing experiences a human can endure. When we lose someone or something deeply meaningful to us, it rips away a core piece of how we've constructed our reality. Suddenly, the framework through which we've viewed and moved through the world no longer applies in its previous form.  

This disorienting state of grief, characterized by emotionally hurricane-force winds of sadness, anger, regret and every feeling in between, is the furthest thing from an environment conducive to clear-headed decision making. And yet, in the immediate aftermath and long grieving process of a major loss, we are inevitably faced with a flood of choices both big and small that require careful navigation.

The impairment grief has on executive brain function is part of what makes decision making in these states so fraught. Numerous studies have found that the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for focus, logic, planning, and weighing consequences - effectively goes "offline" in acute periods of grief and trauma.

Researchers have found this critical region is deactivated and deprived of usual blood flow when someone is overwhelmed by intense emotions like those experienced after a major loss. Dr. Mary-Frances O'Connor, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief, describes grieving individuals as essentially operating in an "emotionally hijacked state" that inhibits rational thought.

"There's a very deep biological override when we are grieving that causes decision making to essentially shut down," she explains. "All resources are directed towards managing the intense emotions, leaving very little for higher order analysis."

In the throes of grief, then, we are quite literally not ourselves mentally or physiologically. Making major decisions from a destabilized frame of mind but hastily pushed for closure raises huge risks of poor judgement and future regrets. And yet the common pressures and logistics of dealing with a death or wrenching loss don't afford much patience.

There are urgent matters to attend to, from planning services to managing inheritance and legal obligations. Families must make weighty group decisions while emotions are combustibly raw. Even more pedestrian choices like what to cook for dinner become grueling under a crushing apathy for routines and self-care.

Each of these decision points, piled atop the already emotionally sapping work of grief, exacerbates what psychologists call "grief brain" or "widow brain." Memories fade, concentration dwindles, and we rob ourselves of the mental stamina needed to properly reflect and analyze options. We end up further depleted and destabilized, turning to impulsive coping habits or quick fixes rather than slow, well-reasoned choices.

"When we are in the throes of deep grief, we make all kinds of decisions poorly or abdicate decisions entirely," says O'Connor. "Your brain is overloaded already, so decision making capabilities are extremely diminished."

Yet the undeniable reality also exists that major life decisions cannot simply be put on indefinite pause while grieving, as much as we might wish we could mentally check out completely. And often, avoiding difficult choices or reverting to a "just get through it" mindset simply delays inevitable pain and complicates matters further down the line.

The big-picture plan for a bereaved individual often requires reassessing priorities, responsibilities, living situations, and more. Careful thought must be given to preserving emotional and physical wellness, supporting surviving loved ones through transitions, and reimagining one's identity and purpose. That's a heavy cognitive burden upon a mind already robbed of capacity for deep processing.  

So despite grief dramatically hindering decision-making capabilities, major choices still cannot be totally abdicated or defaulted to short-term reactive measures. Over time, poor decisions can lead to damage that compounds the trauma and stalls the healing process. At the extreme end, impaired judgement stemming from grief may even put one's health and safety at risk through substance misuse, reckless behaviors, or lack of self-care.

Experts advise building in extra time for choices where possible, creating "buffer zones" that allow space for sleeping on decisions rather than rushing into potentially reckless commitments. When urgent calls simply cannot be postponed, bringing a level-headed loved one into the decision matrix can provide a counterbalance to the emotionally myopic grieving mindset. Checklists and calendars can impose imposed order. But overall, an abundance of patience and self-compassion is required for difficult decisions during grief.

"Forgive yourself for not being at your best, and resist pressure to simply 'get over it' and resume life as normal at an artificially accelerated pace," advises O'Connor. "These timetables and pressures only set you up for further destabilization."

Indeed, one of the most common pitfalls is believing you've emotionally moved on from a major loss long before your mind, body and spirit actually have. Pushing forward with major life plans as an effort to "get back to normal" often leads to cascading regrets and reversions into upheaval.  

Experts recommend taking your time, holding off on irrevocable decisions until clarity returns, and easing gradually back into routines. The true grieving process takes much longer than most people realize - typically a year or more for the most acute physical and emotional impacts. Rushing into decisions before you've had space to heal can reopen trauma rather than moving forward.

"We generally don't give ourselves enough time to truly integrate losses before pivoting to the next chapter of life," notes Dr. Janet Founded, a clinical psychologist specializing in post-traumatic growth. "Grief works on its own organic timeline, and we're often still very much living in the disorientation phase yet nudged to start making permanent choices for the path ahead."  

Even emotionally intelligent people run the risk of blindspots tripping them up during the maze of upheaval, guilt and angst kicked up by a major loss. Without giving grief its due process, people often end up over-compromising or over-correcting in an attempt to extract order from chaos.

Some run towards addictive escape outlets to avoid difficult decisions. Others snap towards overly rigid rules and schedules to sublimate fears of complete groundlessness. Still others become so battered by grief that they say "yes" to any path promising short-term catharsis without exercising judgment, even paths objectively harmful to their long-term wellbeing.  

That's why grief counseling and facilitating decision support networks are so vital. While grief brain can induce us to retreat or lash out impulsively, having compassionate guides and structures in place creates stabilizing footholds on the path through the darkness.

With time, the cloud of grief does eventually lift enough to restore more effective decision making faculties. But reaching that point requires patience, honesty about your current limitations, and dispensing with any shame or haste around the process. Grieving is one of the most destabilizing human experiences to endure, eroding our decision-making capacities. Yet the choices we make during this period can profoundly impact the resolution and meaning we ultimately derive from loss.

It's a delicate dance of acting when we must while resisting pressures to move on before we're ready - radical self-compassion balanced with taking advantage of supports. Grief may temporarily undermine the executive brain function needed for sound judgment. But provided you honor the organic timeline grief requires without being reckless, you once again regain the clarity and focus to chart a newly reconstructed version of your life story after the unraveling.