You’re Not Crazy — You’re Grieving — Part Two
Author: Alan Wolfelt
This is part two of a six-part series adapted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt's book, You're Not Crazy — You're Grieving.
Part one appeared in the summer issue of TAPS Magazine.
It's Important for You to Feel Safe and Comforted
Have you felt stressed, anxious, fearful, agitated, panicked, worried, or uneasy since the death? I’m not sure grief is possible without these feelings. As author C.S. Lewis wrote after his 45-year-old wife died of cancer, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
Feeling afraid or anxious is not pleasant, and I know it can be terrifying. Still, fear is perfectly normal after someone important to you dies. And if you’ve been experiencing fear, it could well be part of what is making you feel “crazy.”
Why We Feel Afraid After Loss
Why is fear so common in the first weeks and months after a death? While fear rarely feels good, there are a number of reasons it makes sense in early grief.
First, the death of someone we love impacts our sense of safety, which arouses our bodies’ fight, flight, or freeze systems. Stress chemicals flood our bloodstreams. Our minds and bodies are placed on high alert for the possibility of more danger.
Second, a death often creates numerous practical stressors. In the first weeks, immediate family members have a lot to take care of. People must be notified and funerals planned. Many forms have to be completed. Financial matters must be tended to. Difficult conversations are required. All of these obligations are stressful and compound the natural biochemistry of fear.
Third, death naturally causes existential fear. It makes us worry about how or if we’ll survive being shattered. We are forced to confront unanswerable questions about the meaning and purpose of life. We realize how vulnerable we are — and how vulnerable other loved ones who are still living may be. Life’s cruelty and fleetingness are especially pronounced at this time, and they can feel quite scary.
And fourth, one of our core relationships has been severed. Our relationships often make us feel safe and secure in who we are as individuals. In addition, they ground us as part of a family and a community. The prospect of having to rebuild both our self-identity and sense of security can be overwhelming.
It is no wonder fear and anxiety can be such a big part of the craziness of early grief. Acknowledging that fear is one part. The other part is finding ways to soothe that fear. Your capacity to build a well-stocked toolkit of effective soothing strategies will help you survive this time.
Recognizing Your Fear
Are you aware that you’ve been feeling afraid or anxious since the death? It can sometimes be hard to recognize fear and anxiety for what they are, especially if they show up in ways that you don’t necessarily associate with fear.
Here are some common fear-based symptoms in early grief:
- Nervousness, tension, or restlessness
- Sense of foreboding that something else bad is going to happen
- Faster than normal heart rate
- Faster than normal breathing
- Trembling or shaking
- Fidgeting or jumpiness; startling easily
- Fatigue and weakness
- Gastrointestinal troubles
- Racing thoughts
- Repetitive thoughts or worries
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Avoiding certain places, people, or circumstances
If you are regularly experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you’re probably struggling with fear and anxiety in early grief. It is common and normal. It is also something that requires your compassionate attention.
Soothing Your Fear and Anxiety
While fear in early grief is normal and understandable, it can also be a paralyzing, all-consuming experience that prevents you from getting the help and support you need in the short-term. And if it goes on intensely for too long, it can also harm your health because stress chemicals can cause and worsen disease. Studies show that chronic anxiety weakens our immune systems, causes cardiovascular damage, leads to gastrointestinal trouble, accelerates aging, worsens memory and decision-making, and may result in the risk for clinical depression.
Also important: Unchecked fear tends to get in the way of other mourning work that will help you integrate and move through your early grief. Basically, fear can throw up a roadblock that stalls and even intensifies your early grief. What this means is that learning how to soothe your fears in healthy ways is an essential daily self-care priority.
The following tips and activities may help ease your fear.
Any time you feel anxious, restless, or afraid, give one of them a try. Keep testing out different approaches until you find at least a few that reliably work for you.
Keep Linking Objects Close
Linking objects are items that belonged to the person who died that you might now like to have around you. Objects such as clothing, books, knick-knacks, jewelry, artwork, and other prized possessions can help you feel physically closer to the person you miss so much. They can also help you feel safer and calmer.
If you like to hold, be near, look at, sleep with, caress, or smell a special belonging of the person who died, you’re not at all crazy. You’re simply trying to hold on to a tangible, physical connection to the person. The person’s body is no longer physically here, but these special items are. And if they help you make it through the naturally scary, anxiety-filled early months of grief, so much the better.
I would also suggest that you not rush into giving away the belongings of the person who died. Sometimes people hurry into clearing out all the “stuff” because they think it will help them heal and “move on.” But as we’ve said, grief is necessary. Trying to go around it doesn’t work and is not a good idea. Many grieving people have told me how much they regret having quickly gotten rid of the belongings of the person who died — only to wish months later that they had them back.
Care for Yourself
If there was ever a time to indulge yourself with your favorite comforts, it’s now. In fact, think of them as survival tactics — not indulgences. Take a nap. Curl up on the sofa with your softest blanket and binge your favorite TV show. Eat your favorite comfort foods. Take a long shower or bath. Meet up with friends at your favorite restaurant, or invite a good friend over for takeout.
Ask for hugs. Listen to soothing music. Watch the sunset. Play a game on your phone. Play with your pet. Reread your favorite book.
“What if I don’t feel like doing anything?” you might ask. This is common in early grief. It is normal to have an inability to experience joy for a period of time after experiencing significant loss in your life. There is even a term for it called “anhedonia.” It’s when nothing feels motivating. Nothing feels pleasurable or makes you content or happy. If you read the ideas in the last paragraph and thought that most of them sounded unappealing, you may be experiencing the normal anhedonia of early grief. Other signs include a lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, such as work, sex, food, etc.
If you feel stuck in anhedonia or your grief is preventing you from taking care of your own basic daily needs, it’s time to see your primary care provider or a grief counselor. While temporary anhedonia is normal in early grief, ongoing anhedonia is a potential sign of clinical depression. Please reach out to get the support you need and deserve.
See a Physician or Counselor
If you are feeling so unwell or crazy that you’re having a hard time sleeping, eating, and functioning, it’s a good idea to schedule a checkup with your primary care provider. This would also be a good time to consider seeing a grief counselor or therapist for a few sessions.
I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with you! I have simply seen time and again that getting a little professional reassurance and support for the normal, intense symptoms of early grief can help you better survive and take steps to understand them.
Your medical doctor can help assure you that any physical symptoms of grief you may be experiencing — heart palpitations, body aches, headaches, trouble sleeping, and more — aren’t due to an illness that needs diagnosis and treatment. If you’re having any physical concerns that mimic the symptoms or cause of death of the person who died — for example, if you’ve been having chest discomfort, and your loved one died of a heart attack — your primary care provider can help ease your mind by ruling out this possibility.
Like seeing a physician, grief counseling is another basic form of self-care. Just a few sessions with a good grief counselor can help assure you that you are not going crazy, but actually grieving. They can also help support you while you experience your intense pain.
Move Your Body
Fear is a primal physical response in the body. Moving your body is an excellent way to reduce the stress chemicals while also increasing the biochemicals that boost feelings of contentment, ease, and happiness, such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Light exercise can do wonders for lessening anxiety and enhancing feelings of well-being. You can start really small if you are not physically active already. Try walking for 10 minutes to start with, then gradually increase the duration. If you don’t like walking, choose an activity you enjoy more, such as biking, yoga, shooting hoops, pickleball, or gardening.
Make Sleep a Priority
Good sleep and wellness go hand in hand. Poor sleep, fearful thinking, and feeling crazy do too.
Insomnia is often a normal part of the early grief experience. But if you’re not sleeping and incapable of functioning due to exhaustion, it’s probably time to get help with your sleep. See your primary care provider and explain your sleep challenges. Temporary use of sleep medication or supplements, such as melatonin, might be wise. You can also try relaxation and sleep apps on your phone, such as Calm and Loona. It is worth continuing the search until you find something that ensures you get adequate sleep.
Avoid Misuse of Alcohol and Drugs
Many people turn to alcohol and drugs to help them feel less anxiety and pain after a major loss. Nobody wants to experience hurt of this magnitude. Looking to numb the pain and fear is understandable.
The problem with using drugs and alcohol to cope with grief, of course, is that they can harm our bodies and are also habit-forming. What’s more, when they are relied on too often, they distance us from the reality of our loss and grief. I have seen many times that substance use hindered or complicated healing rather than helped it.
If others express concern about your alcohol or drug use, or if you yourself are wondering if the frequency or degree of your substance use is healthy, I urge you to talk to your primary care provider about it.
Cutting back is probably a good idea, and if you are struggling with addiction, getting help right now is the wisest, best thing you can do.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is recognized as one of North America's leading death educators and grief counselors. His books on grief for both caregivers and grieving people — including You're Not Crazy — You're Grieving, from which this article series is adapted — have sold more than a million copies worldwide and are translated into many languages. He is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and a TAPS Advisory Board Member. To learn more, visit centerforloss.com.