No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear ~ C.S. Lewis – A Grief Observed
Loss Challenges Our Beliefs & Our Identity
When we lose someone or something that we love and gives our life meaning, we feel anxious. Serious losses – such as death of a loved one, relationship loss, major illness, job loss, etc. – at best challenge and at worst threaten our world view. To varying degrees we all get up each day assuming that the world is a relatively safe and predictable place – that our loved ones, our health and our work will continue to be there for us tomorrow. Our sense of self identity is also connected to what we believe and how secure we feel in our lives. Loss – especially sudden or catastrophic loss – can profoundly challenge our beliefs and identity, and we can feel profoundly upset and anxious having our beliefs and our view of ourselves disturbed.
We human beings have a self protective tendency to disbelieve or dismiss those events that threaten our world view. This perspective is particularly common during the early days of loss, when we may be in shock, and are struggling to accept that the loss has taken place. One part of our mind knows the loss has happened, while another part of the mind resists that truth. Resistance to the finality of loss is the creative way our mind protects us from feeling the full force of the blow
As we go through normal grief the reality of the loss usually begins to sink in, sometimes causing a crisis of faith. Having one’s fundamental beliefs and identity threatened can be deeply frightening, and we respond by feeling anxious. Fear is the emotion that is at the heart of anxiety. This fear is to a large extent driven by worry about an uncertain future – a future we cannot imagine without that beloved person or thing we have lost, and we also worry about how this will impact our sense of ourselves. It is common for many anxious questions to arise: How will we cope in the face of this loss? Will our lives become emptier? Can we rebound? Who are we now in the face of that loss? These are typical worries people struggle with in response to loss.
So the process of grief is not just about mourning the absence of that which has been lost, but also a coming to terms with the disruption or dissolution of our belief systems, and how we see our selves. How well we adjust to and cope with that challenge to our ‘assumptive world’ will influence our emotional resilience and ability to rebound from the pain such losses.
Healing from grief and loss involves continuous realizations and new meaning making. In particular, for our ongoing psychological well being it is necessary that we eventually come to accept that the loss has occurred, and will likely transform some or all of our world view. To do good grief work we will likely find ourselves returning to and reviewing the loss over and over again, as acceptance tends to be a gradual process. This is why grief is often described as a wave or spiral, and not a linear process.
By repeatedly confronting our losses in healthy doses, rather than avoiding them, they become more real. Over time, new meaning and beliefs stemming from loss emerge and become integrated into the reality of our lives. For example, widows may discover that they can lead more independent lives or possibly marry again. People of faith may find that their spirituality becomes stronger. Grieving people need permission to change and adjust to their evolving belief systems and reconstructed lives and identity. Group support or counseling can play a helpful role in providing comfort, reassurance and perspective as people adapt to the reality of their loss. For those experiencing a crisis of belief or faith, counseling can be an essential asset to recovering their psychological well being.
The Stress Response – Fight, Flight, Freeze or Collapse
When loss provokes fear and anxiety, it causes the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to cascade through our bodies. These stress hormones prepare us to confront, escape, remain motionless or play dead in the face of a threat. The problem is that our bodies don’t know the difference between a physical or psychological threat. Stress hormones make us feel anxious. So managing the stress response can become a critical component of minimizing anxiety in the face of loss.
What’s the Solution?
When confronted with loss, one of the hardest things to accept is the additional layer of loss of control, predictability, etc. But in essence, acceptance of our emotional reactions to loss is what’s required. If you know that you can expect to feel temporarily stressed, anxious, disoriented, unsafe or insecure, it can make loss seem less difficult to manage as it normalizes the experience. It can also be helpful to remember that anxiety is a normal, even healthy response to loss as it is a biologically and psychologically hard wired. The experience of acute anxiety can last anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the nature and meaning of the loss. Many people find that calming and soothing activities such as meditation, slow breathing and massage can be very helpful during this time. It also helps to spend time with understanding and supportive people.If you find that your anxiety escalates after 6 to 12 months, or you are dealing with a lot of panic symptoms, then you may benefit from connecting with a trained psychotherapist. Counseling can provide a safe atmosphere in which to express your emotions and understand your thoughts, and learn how to calm down your body, so you can deal more effectively with your heart and mind as you adjust to your loss.
Need help dealing with anxiety and loss? Contact Glynis to Request a Counseling Appointment
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, and Certified Addictions Counselor, specializes in Anxiety Counseling, Grief and Loss Counseling, Relationship Counseling, Difficult Family Relationships and Addictive Behaviors.
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