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Grieving made me an anxious person. Maybe you can relate?
We are all afraid of something, but not all of us know anxiety. I don’t feel that I was ever the worrying type or the one to assume worst-case scenarios. I always saw myself as a rather optimistic, positive, and a comparatively adventurous person. This is until anxiety creeped up on me.
At first, it felt like it came out of nowhere and suddenly. Two years plus into the ride, I understand a lot more, and I am aware that this vulnerability has been building up for quite some time.
You might relate to my story, or also not at all; everyone’s grieving journey is unique. It isn’t just about who you lost and under what circumstances. It is also about where you yourself were at when it happened, how your relationship with the passed person was, your personality, and your unique living experience. This is also why it can feel so lonely or can make you feel separated from or separate you from others who are grieving the same loss as you.
The assumption of there being “the same loss” is of course the mistake. Based on this, I had initially thought that our traumatic experience would bring my mum, my sister, and me even closer. Quite the opposite has been the case ever since day zero. Some of us have never felt further apart. Some days it feels like the loss of dad came with even more loss.
Claire Bidwell Smith wrote an entire book titled Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief where she builds on the conventionally used five steps as defined by Kubler Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She argues that the widely acknowledged five-step theory is insufficient, as it disregards the crucial role anxiety plays as part of the grieving process, especially in respect to the bare vulnerability we often feel in the face of loss.
A few months into losing my dad after many traumatic months of fighting to save him, the pandemic had just taken off and I found myself listening to an Instagram live, where Bidwell Smith talked about her new book. I had ordered it before the event even finished, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
I wasn’t feeling particularly anxious at this point, nor did I exactly understand how anxiety was related to grief. But I guess I had a hunch I would need it sooner or later. Needless to say, that book has been residing on my nightstand ever since, and I pick it up whenever I feel I need to understand something about this journey I am on, or if the anxiety threatens to overwhelm me.
It wasn’t until I had an accident last summer that left me with a head injury that is still healing nine months later that anxiety really kicked in strongly. I have felt anxious in isolated moments here and there before, but nothing like on a post-accident forest walk with my partner where it suddenly got dark sooner than anticipated, and I was convinced that wild boar would attack us fatally.
Even then, I first thought it was all about this unfortunate accident, where I felt—again—such a loss of control and had been injured quite much. This would naturally make me afraid of things injuring me for a while, right? Let me just tell you that I wasn’t prepared for the extent of fear I have felt ever since. I was afraid to leave the apartment by myself, I didn’t dare walking through under a construction crane, I didn’t use the microwave for a while, I didn’t want to drive…
I signed myself up for therapy right as these things started happening, and right there in my first session, my therapist immediately connected my level of anxiety attacks with the trauma I had experienced around my losing my father.
Developments ever since haven’t been interesting, in any case far from linear progress. Just last week, I had been on a plane—flying has always been something that I really enjoyed. So just as we reached cruising altitude, I gazed out the window and thought to myself, “We are very high up here. What if we crash?”
Then reason came in, “But planes rarely ever crash when in cruising altitude.”
Anxiety-brain responded, “Remember this plane in China recently that crashed out of nowhere right in the middle of its flight?”
The next thing I remember is the physical sensations you get when free-falling in some roller-coaster thing. I looked to my seat neighbor, checked the other passengers’ faces, looked back out again, and everything was obviously as should be. Yet the physical sensations wouldn’t fade.
I noticed my legs tickling, nausea kicking in, lightheadedness, and my breath picking up. That is when I realized that I was right in the middle of experiencing a panic attack. I tried all the nervous system regulating practices my yoga and meditation experience has equipped me with, but nothing would stop my heartbeat from getting faster. No breathing exercise, somatic exercise, or visualization was able to get me out of this.
I kept on looking at the time, thinking it has got to stop eventually. But, 15 minutes in, my smart watch only kept on alerting me about the rising stress level, while all I could think of was how not to start screaming for help. I was crying or rather sobbing, and the next thing I noticed was my seat neighbor grabbing my hand. I looked over, and he only asked me, “Do you need anything?” I said I didn’t, and so he kept holding my hand, and my breathing slowed down eventually.
The thing with anxiety is that it is a lonely thing because nobody can really understand what is going on inside of you. All that somebody can provide you with is being there with you and holding you through it—just like that stranger held me.
Now there is the fear of this happening again—an actual accident or a panic attack in fear of the former.
I almost decided to not go on a long train trip today, as the forecast predicted heavy storms, and I worried about the likelihood of me getting injured in some twisted, unlucky accident. I am writing this on the train.
So, how do we not crumble? We trust ourselves that we can cope.
I got me. You got you.
Or as Taylor Swift roughly said at a graduation speech at NYU a few days ago, “Difficult things are going to happen to us. […] We breathe in, we breathe through, and we breathe out.”