There’s an idea called the “Impossible Task” that’s gone viral in the past year or so. Coined by M. Molly Backes, the Impossible Task is the inability to manage a very simple, every day function that would not be a problem were it not for the brain being affected by major depression, anxiety, AHDH, grief, or some other disorder that interrupts one’s executive functioning skills.
Executive function is defined as the brain’s ability to manage a variety of tasks in the areas of memory, flexible thinking and inhibitory control.
Without the ability to manage these tasks, an individual – children and adults alike – can have difficulty with any or all of the following: paying attention, organizing and planning, starting tasks and sticking with them, managing their emotions, and keeping track of what one is doing.
Grief will do this to you. Complicated grief, as in the aftermath of a suicide, can (and will) severely impact one’s executive functioning.
Tragically, I know this personally. And so does anyone else impacted by the suicide of a loved one.
I was destroyed after my husband died by suicide in October of 2016 following a long period of failing health, during which time I had been struggling to balance everything, and to pick up the slack wherever I could to try to make life easier on him. I can’t begin to tell you what a mess I was.
My problems with memory, planning & organizing, follow through, judgment, and emotional regulation had been coming on gradually anyway because of his illnesses and the stress and fear and anxiety that I was living with, but after John’s death, my ability to think seemed to die along with him.
Too many things were suddenly impossible, like paying bills. I’d forget or be unable to figure out how to do it (too often, I couldn’t find my checkbooks or my debit cards; I would even find it impossible to sign in to my on-line accounts).
Then I’d have to talk to those I owed money to, but discussing why I’d gotten behind would set me off into uncontrollable bouts of messy, snotty sobbing, and could cost me hours of being able to accomplish anything. I was barely hanging on as it was, and this would set me back even further.
I came home one day to find the water company had spray painted a blue arrow in the snow in front of my house. Oh my god… I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paid the water bill. Panicked, I searched through my house for my checkbook, and then drove the half mile to the local water district. I cried inconsolably while paying that bill. The clerk seemed kind enough but clearly couldn’t understand my gasping about my husband’s suicide and how I couldn’t think any more.
Rationally, I knew that delaying paying bills, and even delaying getting organized enough to pay those bills, would make it all worse. It didn’t matter. I just couldn’t seem to pull it together, and even when I was aware of what I had to do, I couldn’t do it. And of course, no one really understood. After all, I had a Master’s degree in education, had run a nearly $9M business for 10 years, and had served on multiple boards and committees, often appointed by local mayors and even the State’s Governor at one point.
But I couldn’t think. There were many tasks that just seemed impossible.
(A few weeks after John died, a salesman came into the antiques shop we had started. He wanted to sell me something; I think it was a fluorescent sign. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t even consider it right then because my husband had just died. His response? “Well, that’s not my fault”. I doubt he had an executive functioning problem. More likely a basic lack of humanity problem.)
Even my employer at the time didn’t understand what I was going through and I worked for a mental health agency. (One supervisor told me to just do what I’d tell my clients to do. She clearly didn’t grasp the enormity of what I was dealing with.)
I knew I was finally beginning to heal the day I made one of those “impossible task” phone calls, and didn’t break down. At that point, John had been gone for three years.
There’s much more I could write on this topic: kids I’ve known with trauma histories or ADHD who can’t seem to get a handle on basic processes and whose parents don’t understand why the child “doesn’t pay attention”; adults with major depression who can’t seem to get out of their own way; the list is sadly longer than we might realize.
You really don’t ever know what battle is going on in someone else’s life.
For more information on The Impossible Task, check out these resources:
A quick discussion of executive functioning can be found here: