When facing anxiety after the loss of a loved one, grievers may feel that prior to their loss there was something in life they took for granted: security. Security in the world, security in the safety and comfort the deceased provided, and security in the knowledge that things would always be okay.
While there are so many things taken with the loss of a loved one, this loss of security can shake and alter a foundation we didn’t even realize we had.
Anxiety is a term (like depression) that is often misused and misunderstood. Probably because there are degrees and levels to it, and probably because so many people feel that they have experienced it in one way or another at some point in their life.
Unlike fear, anxiety is an emotion based on a perceived (instead of imminent or real) threat. It’s the worry of what could happen.
For the griever, it’s the worry of what could happen next.
I’ve heard so many people after a loss say, “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop”. These aren’t negative or pessimistic people. Most spent a lifetime living in confidence that things “happen for a reason”, and felt sure that they could handle anything that came their way, and that things would work out in the end.
Then their loved one died, and everything changed.
This anxiety will look different for everyone and can manifest itself in many ways, and on many levels. Some examples of what those facing anxiety after the loss of a loved one may be experiencing include:
1. Feeling nervous or uncomfortable out of the house/in crowds: After a loss, many people find it challenging to socialize in the way they did before. Either because the person they lost (a spouse for example) was the one they socialized with, or because they simply feel that they can no longer relate to those around them. However, a griever may also find they avoid crowds because they feel overstimulated by the sensory experience of being out among others. For the griever already pre-occupied and overwhelmed with their grief, the noise and activity of the outside world may just be too much to bear. What makes this hard is that the quiet and isolation of home can bring its own issues and challenges. So what’s a griever to do, and is there any place to feel “okay”?
2. Fear of taking “risks”: Maybe you were someone who loved roller coasters. Or traveling. Or your job required you to make presentations and get up in front of large groups of people to speak. And now you can’t do it. You don’t feel safe anywhere, and you feel unsure of everything. Even those things that are supposed to be “fun” create a feeling of uneasiness. This new doubt is no small thing. It can change everything the griever thought they knew about themselves, and just as the example above, it serves to keep a person away from things that may have initally brought purpose or joy. And more than anything- it can isolate a person who is already feeling alone.
3. Feeling the fragility of life in general: After the death of her father a woman told me, “All I think about now is something happening to my mom. I am so scared of losing her too”. I hear this, or something like it, all the time. For some grievers they feel they are just barely hanging on, and the only thing keeping them going is holding on tight to the people in their life who remain. Many grievers have had multiple losses, and all within a short time of each other. For them, the reality of mortality is all too real, and they can’t help but thinking “who’s next?”.
While so many parts of the grieving process are unique, what it takes to help someone facing anxiety after the loss of a loved one is actually very similar to coping with anxiety at other points in life. Much of it will depend on the nature and severity of it.
Consider the following:
- Are you someone who has dealt with anxiety before and have found it has grown and worsened with your loss?
- Or is this new uncertainty an entirely new experience?
- Is the anxiety debilitating- is it disrupting your ability to go to work, make a living, or otherwise function at least in some part as you did before?
- Or have the changes been more mild? A change for sure – uncomfortable, and unwelcome, but perhaps more a symptom of the acute and early days of grieving?
For those who may find that their anxiety is troubling, but not incapacitating, here are some things you can do to help get you through each day:
- Mindful breathing– those not already on board with yoga or meditation may roll their eyes at this suggestion, and that’s okay. Because for those who haven’t developed a practice of relaxation, the benefits may seem unreal or unattainable. But at a time like this, perhaps with nothing to lose, it could be worth giving it a try. A quick online search of mindful breathing will bring up thousands of options. Some are more complicated than others, but it can be as simple as taking a few moments to stop and focus, and think of nothing else but your breath. By concentrating on our breathing as we breathe in and breathe out, we are simplifying and making ourselves present in the moment in a way that few others things can. Some people do a counting breath, others try a word or a mantra. To do this, simply breathe in, and as you breathe out say to yourself, “calm”. It may not work the first, or even the tenth time, but like most things, with practice we can become quite good at a breathing technique that works for us. And the good news is that it costs nothing and can be done any time and any place.
- Say “No”/don’t overcommit– there’s nothing worse than agreeing to be someplace that we never wanted to go. If you are going out or doing things to please other people right now, it can make your time when you’re there even worse. This is not to say that you turn down all invitations, but if you know a particular place may be a trigger for your grief or anxiety it is okay to decline. Give yourself permission to not people please, and know that scaling back now doesn’t mean that you will always have to live a more quiet and secluded life. Instead know that saying no and not committing yourself to things you know will cause discomfort is a very important part of your self care right now.
- Focus on your health – there is not one person who doesn’t know by now that we’re supposed to be sleeping more, eating less, and exercising at least a few times a week. Still, when life gets busy it can be hard to fit it all in, and for grievers, there may be little motivation left to care for themselves as they did before. But now, more than ever, your physical health, and the impact it has on your mental health and well being, should be given more attention. As sleep deprivation can be such a common and destructive part of the grieving process, it’s important to make every effort to get a good night’s rest. (Click here to find some tips and tricks that may work for you).
- Accept the things you can’t control – plain and simple, if holding on tight and worrying was enough to keep the people we love safe and here on this Earth forever, then no loved one would ever be lost. Take a moment to recognize and acknowledge the normalcy of the anxiety and worry you feel. Listen to the message it’s sending you. And then work to release the need to hold on and control the things you can’t control. Rather than living in dread of more loss, and instead of holding on to the people we love in fear, let loss be a reminder to treasure the people in your life who remain.
Taking time, saying no, taking care of your health, letting go…these may not be new ideas, but your consideration and commitment to them can be.
And for those who have suffered with a more severe anxiety before or find they are almost crippled by it now, professional counseling can help. At any point in our lives it can be useful to have someone outside of our circle of family and friends to talk to. And at a time like this, someone with expertise in the field of grief or anxiety can offer a griever some tools to cope before it interferes with their life any further. Because working through this anxiety and rebuilding a foundation of security is what every griever needs to feel confident as they make their way back out into this world of uncertainty and change…