After the death of a loved one, the intense amount of emotions that come with grief can heighten many of the fears that run through your mind—that person’s death fears about your own mortality, or worry about losing someone else. Your body and mind are reacting stronger than before you experienced the loss. When we witness someone die, death becomes more inevitable and real than ever before.
Claire Bidwell Smith, a licensed therapist specializing in grief and author of several books on grief including, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, writes that most people have never felt such strong emotions as they do when they lose someone they love. It can be very frightening to find yourself overwhelmed with sadness or anger, and this can lead to even more anxiety, even years after the loss.
She goes on to say that at its most basic, anxiety is the sense of fear, whether real or imagined. Your fears can be about something in the past, the present, or the future. In grief we experience fear for many reasons: We can feel afraid of how the future has changed now that an important person in our lives is gone; we can feel afraid of more loss, worrying that we might lose more loved ones; or we can worry about our health, concerned that we may get sick or die soon, too. Some people also have residual feelings of trauma as a result of witnessing or hearing details of the death itself.
Anxiety can also perpetuate itself. Once you experience one panic attack, you may find yourself worrying that you may experience another and you won’t be able to cope with it. It’s a cycle that can last far beyond the actual loss, but it is one that can definitely be brought under control. While many people experience anxiety for a variety of reasons—divorce, moving, illness—the kind of anxiety that is brought on as a result of losing someone close to you, grief anxiety, has an actual underlying situational cause. By allowing ourselves to grieve and honestly explore the impact of the loss, we are better able to ease and manage the anxiety that accompanies it.
Grief and anxiety are expressed in many ways. The way they present themselves and are expressed is highly personable. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of anxiety as they can manifest in very real physical symptoms. These symptoms can make you think there is something physically wrong with you when in reality, there is a deeper, underlying, psychological issue that must be addressed in order to alleviate the physical symptoms.
Smith shares a list of some of the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Choking sensations and nausea
- Shaking and sweating
- Fatigue and weakness
- Chest pain and heartburn
- Muscle spasms
- Hot flashes or sudden chills
- Tingling sensations in your extremities
- A fear that you’re going crazy
- A fear that you might die or be seriously ill
Before she became a therapist with a practice in Los Angeles and working with clients around the globe, Smith experienced anxiety and depression from the diagnosis, treatments, and eventual loss of both of her parents to cancer by the time she was twenty-five years old. Thinking that she was alone in her feelings and reactions, it was years later that she recognized her anxiety as being normal and a normal part of grieving.
“There is a wonderful and unexpected gift that comes with seeing how fragile our lives are,” she writes. “It enables us to be more present, to feel grateful for what is right in front us, to cherish what we are able to hold onto right here, right now. But in order to reach that level of acceptance, we must wade through the tremulous waters of fear and anxiety, recognizing them as a part of a larger process that will see us through to a shore where so many of us have emerged changed, if not healed.”