Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 58, titled “Grieving What Could Happen.” When we have experienced loss or the breaking of a connection in our lives, grief anxiety is not often far behind it. As we work toward healing, the way we see the world shifts. Sometimes this is for our good but more often than not, our vision of the world morphs into a place that is unsafe, untrustworthy, and out of our control. So this week we’re going to learn a bit more about grief anxiety and identify ways we might help ourselves manage our anxiety with intention and compassion for our journey.
Now that holiday season is in full swing, all of our regularly scheduled anxiety has a pumpkin spice or peppermint flavor to it. I’m well aware that holiday grief and anxiety are their entirely own package to unravel. But today, we are going to try and stay on the topic of “regular, old grief anxiety”: the kind that exposes our most vulnerable fears about the future and everything we cannot influence or control on our own.
Claire Bidwell Smith is a world renowned grief expert and therapist. In her latest book titled “Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief,” Bidwell Smith draws the line between our increasing anxiety and the unresolved grief in our lives. Now that we are nearly three years into the Covid pandemic, we are witnessing how unaddressed grief manifests in our lives. I don’t know about all of you, but personally I feel as though the untended grief in my life is right at the surface, waiting to get through at any given moment.
Grief work through the Restorative Grief model allows us to engage ourselves as whole people – mind, heart, body, and spirit. Anxiety is a master at disrupting all four of those areas in our lives. For me, grief anxiety arrives in the form of intrusive thoughts about future loss. I feel my chest tighten, my shoulders raise, and my breath shorten as I fight back tears. Those intrusive thoughts activate my emotions and I feel nervous, powerless, exposed, and overwhelmed. And because I know I’m outside of my usual self, I withdraw from the people – cancelling plans, staying home, and waiting for the onslaught to pass or finally succumb to my mindfulness work.
The fact that I experience grief anxiety as a grief professional means anyone can experience it. It’s not something we’re meant to ignore, nor should we expect that a few quick meditation sessions will leave us healed. Anxiety is real and often ongoing. Our role then, is to support ourselves as grievers by recognizing the connective tissue between the grief we’ve experienced and the anxiety that arises when that grief is activated.
As a little side note, you may have noticed that I’ve stopped using the word “triggered” and started saying “activated.” I am humbly inviting you to do the same, if only for the consideration of those who’ve lost someone at the hands of gun violence. It won’t be an easy change, because the word is ingrained in how we talk and think about trauma. However, with a little humility, you can easily correct yourself midsentence and change the language, setting an incredible example of a growth mindset for others and for yourself by doing so.
The reason we experience an increase of anxiety in our grieving lives is because grief exposes our fears about the unknown future. What happens when we die? How will I live without this person in my life? Can I really be safe if I’m vulnerable? We see this anxiety play out in our dreams or our nightmares, hold us back from participating in social events, and keep us from expressing ourselves in relationships with trust and honesty, too.
Because really, as we learn more about what we are working through, we realize grief is always present. It is the uncomfortable undercurrent of our new life experience, with anxiety as companion at its side.
Let me share this little blurb about Bidwell Smith’s book, because if you’re experiencing anxiety that feels out of control, I think the book is a great resource for you. There’s also a workbook on her website as a free offering to go along with it. Her site writes:
“With concrete tools and coping strategies for panic attacks, getting a handle on anxious thoughts, and more, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief bridges these two emotions in a way that is deeply empathetic and eminently practical.”https://clairebidwellsmith.com/anxiety-missing-stage-grief/
And that’s what we’re after, right? Something practical to keep in our pocket for the moments we recognize grief anxiety interrupting our lives. So whether or not you obtain a copy of the book – and remember, you can ask your local library to purchase a copy – let’s go through at least one strategy for support today.
Anxiety creates a sense of dread in our lives through intrusive thoughts but we can interrupt those thoughts and introduce new ones that allow us to acknowledge our grief anxiety as real. This grief anxiety is tied to a loss – not necessarily a death, of course – and that means we can build connection to that understanding to better manage the anxiety itself.
Even if they induce panic (or as I love to call them, thanks to Joshua Fletcher of Untangle Your Anxiety, adrenaline floods), those are expected. Adrenaline floods are a natural way your body tries to power you up for self-protection. It’s just that in grief, we are always in self-protection mode and that doesn’t help us heal.
One of my favorite ways to address the internal experience of anxiety and adrenaline floods are to externalize them. When I am in the middle of an episode or flood, I speak it aloud and try to notice where I am experiencing it in my body. It literally sounds like, “Oh, this is anxiety. This is an adrenaline flood. I can feel my heart beat increasing, and I definitely notice my muscles tensing as well. I am going to change the way my body is feeling by moving into a different position. I am going to take a deep breath and hold it for five seconds.”
Does this seem awkward? Because good, I want it to be awkward. Anxiety and grief are uncomfortable. That’s not going to change. But when we notice the discomfort, we have a chance to build our tolerance for the discomfort. It’s literally building an internal muscle.
As you’re narrating your actions, find a way to move yourself into a different space. Maybe you’re indoors and take a step outside. Maybe you’re in a car, and you pull over to stand for a moment. Maybe you’re in an airplane, and can pace the aisle for a moment – if not, this is a place where it’s completely reasonable to put your headphones in for white noise, drop your head between your knees, or even just put something over your head to create a less stimulating visual environment.
However you choose, changing your environment even in the littlest way can interrupt the intrusive thoughts and adrenaline flood. Your mind has to start thinking about the present moment, which allows you to start feeling more grounded and connected to what is real and true around you.
It doesn’t resolve the issue of grief anxiety. It does, however, set you on the path of realizing that our nightmares about the future are just that – figments of our imagination. We cannot predict the future, change it with our thoughts, cause someone’s death by meditating about it, or break up with a loved one through a dream. These little grounding actions return a sense of control to the moment, and allow us to make a different choice on the other side of that action, too.
Thank you for listening to episode 58 of Restorative Grief. If you are like me and carry a significant amount of grief anxiety or plain ol’ vanilla anxiety, I highly recommend both books mentioned by Claire Bidwell Smith and Joshua Fletcher. They’re full of brilliant interventions, medical data, and are written in a language that is conversational and approachable. I like reading in small bites – a few pages or a single concept at a time – to avoid additional overwhelm.
If this is your first time listening to the show, thank you for being here! Every week we have touchy conversations that hopefully, invite you to consider your own story a little differently and with a new bend toward hope, help, and healing.
Please take time to leave a review of the show, wherever you listen, and feel free to share this episode with anyone you love – I think at some point, we’re all suffering from grief anxiety without recognizing it. And if you’re interested in learning more about Restorative Grief, don’t forget to subscribe and check out the show notes, as we have a ton of free and cost effective resources to support you as you pursuing healing.
And last but not least, one last thing: Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
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