I have been experiencing something that seems to be common among grieving people: fears and anxiety that had bothered me long ago, but which I had conquered, have come back to haunt me.
I am writing about this because I have heard from others experiencing intense grief that this is not unusual, but it can be a bit concerning. Perhaps my sharing will help make you feel “more normal”. Or maybe this article will help you understand a friend who is grieving and seems to have “fallen back” into old fears or habits.
Issues such as fears, sleeplessness, overeating, depression, aches & pains, and many others may reappear for people stricken by grief – even after years of “recovery” or being free from such things. Being tired, worn down and emotionally spent makes us vulnerable to mental and physical health issues.
After The Accident, I began to fear crowds and not want to be alone in groups of people. I was fearful of entering new places by myself.
These are issues that had been problems for me in the early years of our marriage. No need to go into why, but due to things that happened in my childhood I hated walking into a new place alone such as a new church or a social event. I experienced panic attacks in large crowds like an airport tram or a service counter where people crushed in to place their orders. Ron was aware of this and was very sensitive towards me, always telling me when he would be back if he stepped away from me while traveling, telling me when he left the house, making sure I was comfortable when at a crowded event, etc. He knows the story of why this was an issue for me. He loves me well.
With prayer, good counseling, and learned coping techniques, I overcame these issues. In fact, it had been more than 25 years since experiencing them. So much so that I had forgotten all about them!
For years I have traveled alone doing Home School for High School seminars around the country. I have been to many events unescorted. Having a husband who travels meant I did some things alone. And I was very okay with that.
But since The Accident, I have experienced fear and anxiety again. This is not something I face daily or even regularly. I have had lots of time while traveling the past year that I did things on my own.
- I flew into Chicago alone and had no problems in the airport or on the subway. In fact, I have flown to meet Ron six or seven times in the past year.
- I wandered through a trade show full of people alone. No anxiety!
- I wandered the Memphis Zoo all day alone and had a blast!
- I explored a fun town in upstate New York by myself and I had a great time.
- I have attended plays, concerts and arts events unescorted while he was gone and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
- I have participated in the Precept Ministries summer & fall study programs, traveling there alone.
No need to give more examples, but believe me when I say this is not something my friends should worry about. I’m not going crazy and I am not usually afraid or anxious. And it rarely happens in my hometown. But it does creep up sometimes. I am very grateful that I had joined my ladies Bible Study before The Accident. At the time, none of this was an issue for me; I had no trouble going to a class in a new church by myself. I doubt I would join it today. Going to a new class alone is terrifying to me.
I had learned techniques to deal with these fears and anxiety years ago. I have begun to use those techniques again. I know this is a temporary thing; I will overcome these issues just as I did years ago. But for now, I have to manage them when they pop up.
For example: Going to Tennessee alone a couple of weeks ago I was fine. But going through the Orlando airport with Ron on the way home, I was very uncomfortable. Rational Me knew I was not in danger, but I began to have symptoms of a panic attack. The ticket counters were crazy crowded! Then Ron got through security ahead of me. He finished first and went around the corner. When I got through I could not see him and panic started.
I recognized it, took a deep breath and did some quick self talk: “He will wait for you. You have your ticket and know where to go. He is probably around the corner putting his shoes on. If you don’t find him, use your phone.” And of course, I reminded myself that in 31+ years, he has never left me in an airport. If he did today, it would be a first!
My symptoms began to lessen. I kept taking deep breaths and walked through the crowd. And there he was, around the corner putting his shoes on – just as Rational Me had expected.
Ron noticed I was clearly uncomfortable going through security – hot, flushed, sweaty. He asked if I was okay. I told him I was just a bit warm. No need to go into it all right then. After I found him past security, he noticed how hot I seemed and offered to get me lighter shirt from his carry-on for me to borrow. I thanked him as we rode the train to our terminal. I was dealing with panic and did not want to explain right then.
Once in the terminal, away from the overcrowded ticket counter, stuffy security area, and packed train I told him what had happened. I told him that I have begun to experience the fears and anxiety that plagued me in our early years together. He was loving and kind and understanding. He encouraged me. He did not make a big deal of it or offer platitudes. He didn’t say, “you dealt with that years ago.” He did not tell me this is silly or irrational or stupid. He recognized this as a very real issue for me and gently placed a hand on my shoulder, helped me find a place to sit, got me something to eat and a cool drink (making sure I could see him as he went to the counter), and sat down to chat with me as if it had never happened. He loved me well.
I was soon feeling better: no more sweats, not flushed, heart rate slowed, and breathing became normal. The rest of the trip went beautifully despite crowds and weather delays all around.
I had had a small panic attack, recognized what was happening, used coping techniques and asked for help.
I have recognized that the issues of fear and anxiety have crept back up in my life since The Accident. And sometimes recognizing what is going on is more than half the battle. Understanding what is happening, we can often figure out how to deal with it!
Going through a tragedy like losing a loved one wears us down. Grief is exhausting! And when exhausted, issues that we had dealt with (and maybe even conquered) in the past may creep up again. It can be scary. You may feel like you are losing you mind. Or like you are taking steps backward.
If I feel like I am not doing well, I start feeling bad because I am not doing well, which makes me feels worse leading to more self-condemnation, thus starting a downward cycle … unless I make choice to stop.
I can make a choice for recovery.
After I began to experience these issues, I asked myself and God what was going on. I spent some time thinking about why I had become fearful, examining the times I had begun to panic. I prayed for guidance and wisdom. “OH! I am tired and worn out from grieving this past year.” I realized that I was not going crazy.
While talking with other bereaved parents I found out this kind of thing is common; it’s not something to get upset about. But I also learned that I could and should do something about it.
I know fear of crowds and anxiety may be an issue for me periodically, so I take steps to help prevent fear or anxiety:
- I verify the schedule for the week so I know what to expect.
- I make sure I have healthy snack stuff and good reading material on hand. Stephen Kings books would not be a good idea for me!
- I make a list of folks I might meet for lunch or call to chat with while Ron is in his meetings.
- I check area maps to look for places I would be comfortable exploring or hanging out while Ron works.
- I try to get plenty of rest and a bit of exercise.
- I get outside for a while every day.
- I make sure I have some cash on hand.
- I make sure my phone is fully charged.
- I hold my own ticket.
- I make sure I know what flight and which gate.
- I slow down to carefully read signs and am sure of where I am going.
- I am not shy about asking the folks at the counter for directions or help.
- I arrive in plenty of time for my flight allowing for crowds, long lines, and time to grab a snack before boarding.
- I don’t pack carry-on bags too heavy so they are easy to manage.
- I find the restroom before boarding in case we have delays in take off.
For social and arts events,
- I invite a friend to go with me.
- I carefully choose which events to attend. Some theater shows that Andrew was in are still too hard for me.
- I sit in the back of the theater in case I need to leave. During Joseph, I stayed in the lobby for the two songs they sang at Andrew’s memorial service.
- I arrive just before the curtain rises so I don’t have to stand alone in a crowd.
- I wear comfortable, familiar clothing. This is not a good time to try out new fashions.
- I asked a friend who directs the Community Orchestra if I could attend the dress rehearsal for the free Christmas concert as I knew it would be standing room only and did not have someone to go with. She was thrilled I wanted to come.
And on the rare occasions when fear or anxiety hit, I use the techniques I learned year ago: deep breathing, self talk, thinking through the event, asking for help, etc. They still work.
The one thing I had not done until the Orlando airport was to tell Ron I was dealing with this again. I know he would have encouraged me, helped me, prayed for me and loved me. I suppose I was a bit embarrassed. After all, I had overcome this years ago! This is not Ron’s issue; he was not the cause of any of it. The things that caused this in the first place happened long before I met him. I didn’t want to appear weak or crazy to him. Silly me! He loves me! He wants to know what is going on in my head. He wants to help when he can. He wants me to be transparent and truthful. I should have been months ago.
I don’t know how long I will have to deal with this. But I know I can deal with it with the help of the Holy Spirit and with the love of my soul mate.
If, after the loss of a loved one, you have experienced rekindled fears or anxieties or other issues that you thought you had been rid of years ago, I encourage you to be truthful with those close to you. Let them know what is going on and how they might help. Don’t hide it!
But don’t give in to it either! Choose recovery!
Get professional help if you need it, There is no shame in asking for help. There may be shame in pride and hiding secrets, but there is no shame in asking for help.
Take steps towards recovery, knowing that recovery takes time and effort. But recovery can happen if we do the right things, are patient, and seek help.
I am glad that I have tools to manage my issues and the love of a my husband to help me. I am also grateful for the love of the Creator who sent His only Son to earth so that I can live an abundant, peaceful and joy-filled life!
The Creator loves you, too, and will help you walk through whatever trials you are facing.
And maybe we can meet in a crowded place for dinner sometime to share how God brought us through yet another trial.