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Where grief and fear meet

Grief contains a tumble of emotional and psychological effects. Ask anyone what they are and they will list off Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s favorite five: denial, depression, anger, attempts to bargain away the unwanted change, and acceptance. There is little argument about them, although they certainly do not seem to visit all grievers universally or equally.

I see a glaring omission from that list. In my experience, there is no part of grieving as powerful as fear. Becoming able to identify it and choose how to answer it takes away some of its punch.

My clients have plenty to say about fear. In fact, it seems to permeate many aspects of grieving, including the following:

Fear about emotion

Reggie talked about not wanting to go to sleep at night, afraid of the frightful dreams he often had about his recently deceased father. It was as if the dreams were extending the trauma of his loss, and his resulting emotions felt like more than he could handle.

Fear about behavior

Dressed in her business suit, Sally shredded a Kleenex as she talked about how quickly her emotions race to the surface at the smallest provocation.

“I’m so afraid I will just lose it in the middle of a meeting and run out the door in front of everyone,” she said. “It would be so humiliating.”

Fear about sanity

Greg came in for his appointment one day, rattled. “I was driving over here and I got to Six Corners and had no idea where I was going. I had to pull over and figure it out,” he said. “Am I going crazy?”

Fear about shaken beliefs

Danny had been raised in a strict version of Christianity which taught him that if his faith was strong enough, and if he prayed hard enough, it would protect his loved ones from harm. When his father died in an accident, he had a tough choice: he could keep the belief system that seemed to make the loss his fault. Or he could abandon that belief system because he knew in his heart that he had done everything possible. That would leave him not knowing what to believe. He was afraid to choose either.

Fear of the future

Sixty year-old Lucille looked up in tears. “I can’t see how I’ll go on without Louie. He was the only one I could count on. He was not only my husband but my best friend. Who is ever going to care about me like that again?”

Once we recognize that fear is involved in the pain we face in grieving, we can call on the familiar tools we usually use against fear.

When we encounter fear, two different parts of our brains go to work on how to respond. First, the primitive region of the brain perceives danger even before we have time to formulate a thought about it. Our “reptilian” brain provides three automatic options: we fight, we flee, or we freeze, just like our ancestors did facing a tiger in the grass.

Then the higher regions of the brain, the rational thinking portions, kick in, and refine those reactions. Our higher capabilities allow us to make further choices. They activate our ability to review our past experience to see what else we already know that would help, and to consult our values and beliefs, and to make judgments about exactly what action we would prefer to take. They guide us to call a support person, or take a walk, or write out our thoughts, or have a good cry, all better choices than our instant response. Every choice we make is a chance to diminish the fear.

But in the throes of grieving, it is hard to think. Knowing that, we can make a list of several questions that our higher brains that might help answer: What exactly am I afraid of right now? How is this situation a threat to me? Is there a logical answer to this fear? What did I do the last time I encountered a fear like this? Which of my beliefs suggest how to handle this? How can I best soothe and reassure myself?

Which may lead us to perhaps the most calming thought of all: Like all aspects of grief, this will lessen as we bring everything we’ve got to handling it.

First published in

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