This month’s theme here on Anxiety Connection has been about anxieties and fears related to death and dying. Eileen Bailey had offered suggestions for ways to cope with the anxiety caused by grief. And some of you have written questions such as this one, “Can the loss of a loved one create anxiety disorders?" The answer to this question is that grief and anxiety can definitely co-exist at the same time. I am going to target one specific aspect of such anxiety and that is the fear that your loved ones will become ill and/or die. I think this is a relatively common fear and one which may appear any time after experiencing grief or a trauma related to loss.
I can personally relate to this fear. Following my father’s early death when I was a little girl, I worried incessantly about my mother. She was the only parent I had left and I remember asking her obsessively if she too were going to die. My mother would attempt to reassure me by saying, “I am a tough lady and, no, I am not going to die any time soon.” But, while her words gave me a few minutes of solace, the pervasive anxiety I had over losing her would re-emerge with a vengeance and I would be back to ask her the same question. Fortunately she took it in stride and never lost patience or her temper with me.
In the situation where a child loses their parent early on, it can have a lifetime effect of anxiety over the possibility of losing anyone else. It also can promote a fear of abandonment. Some children may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where they may replay the memories of the loss in their mind leading to great distress and anxiety. One of the current thoughts now is that treating the PTSD is of primary concern over individual grief counseling. In one study looking at children who had lost a parent, it was found that individual grief therapy was far less effective than therapy designed to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I wished that I had received some sort of counseling as a child following my father’s death because my anxiety symptoms have continued well into my adulthood.
The way that my anxiety symptoms manifest now is that I worry excessively when anyone in my family is sick. It worries me, especially when my children are sick because I want to protect them from all harm. I don’t like feeling powerless when it comes to them. And then too, I worry when anyone I love is late. As the clock ticks on, I begin to imagine horrific scenes of car accidents or tragedy. When you suffer from such fear, it seems that loss is always right around the corner ready to take away that which is most precious to you. It can be difficult to feel secure or let your guard down. I can tell you that such anxiety can be very tiresome and energy sapping. Therapy can absolutely help if you suffer from the fear of loss.
Here are some things I have learned from my own experience in therapy during my adult years to deal with this type of anxiety:
• As much as you would like to be able to control everything, you can’t. Letting go of this wish is critical in dealing with your fear. We are vulnerable beings. But this doesn’t mean we need to live in fear. It means that we do as the serenity prayer advises; we gain the wisdom to know what we can and cannot control. We have no control over many of life’s circumstances but we always have control over how we cope and persevere.
• Realize that death is a part of life. We will lose many loved ones in our lifetime as this is inevitable. But if we focus so much upon potential loss we miss out on life itself. If you are constantly worried or fearful then you will miss those wonderful opportunities to connect with others and to feel joy from those connections.
• Trust in your resilience to cope with life’s crises. It is true that each one of us will endure life circumstances which may bring us to our knees. But know that it is possible to get up again and also to find the strength and courage to survive.
• Some might say that our life is more valuable because we do die. Savor the time you have with your loved ones. Live authentically with the courage to show and express love. Create life long memories of spending time with those people you care about most.
• Write down your fears in a diary or journal. When your fear is kept inside your head it grows to block everything else out. Express yourself in writing and give your emotions a safe outlet. Sometimes seeing your fears by the light of day diminishes their power over you.
• If you feel that your fear or anxiety has become disabling in any way then it is time to seek the help of a good therapist. Find someone who specializes in either PTSD or grief counseling. You don’t have to do this alone. There is always support and help available.
It is true that death and dying are an inevitable part of life. We will undoubtedly be faced with multiple losses during our lifetime. But this doesn’t mean that we have to surrender the time we have now to fear. There are ways to cope and diminish the fear and anxiety so that you can focus upon the good things in life such as developing meaningful relationships. Nobody has that crystal ball to predict the future. So in the meantime, enjoy and savor all that life does have to offer. Hug up your loved ones and friends and be grateful for all that is.