ASK THE ANXIETY SISTERS

My mom died a few months ago and I am devastated. In the last few weeks, I have begun to have panic attacks, or at least that is what my doctor calls them. I’ve never had these attacks before. Why now?

First of all, we are so sorry to hear about your mother’s death. We have been through it: My mother died 12 years ago, and I am still struggling to process the loss.

 

It is very common to develop a panic disorder (or to have a pre-existing one intensify) after a death.  You may have heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who came up with what is now known as the five phases of grieving: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, (5) integration/acceptance. Although we know these phases are not the same for everyone (nor do they happen in this exact order every time), they definitely give us a framework with which to make sense of the most common feelings associated with the death of a loved one. Many grief counselors point out (rightfully, we think) that Kubler-Ross left out a major emotion that they see everyday in their practice–anxiety. To us Anxiety Sisters, it is pretty obvious where anxiety fits in this framework: it may be part of each of the phases and often becomes its own after-effect (phase 6?).

 

I developed panic attacks about 6 months after my father died. Another anxiety sister told me her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder became much more disruptive soon after the death of her mother. Abs’ panic intensified substantially after the death of her grandmother. From what many grief therapists say (and from our own interviews with hundreds of women), these reactions are very common.

 

Why do we develop anxiety after losing someone?

 

1) The person that died may have been in the role of caregiver or protector (even just emotionally). A [grand]parent often symbolizes safety, and the loss of that person prompts a very real fear response—that we will be unable to go on without the person we have lost. Our body goes into “fight or flight” even though we are not in immediate danger.

 

2) We live in a culture (Western) that often tries to pretend death is avoidable and therefore pushes it out of mainstream conversation. We try not to think about it and act like youth and immortality are something we can hold onto forever (if we just buy the right products). The death of someone close to us forces us to confront our own mortality, which again prompts our fear response—am I next? Interestingly, Eastern cultures which incorporate death into their lives much more organically, have little experience of anxiety surrounding loss. This is not to say they do not experience profound sadness and grief—only that anxiety and the fear response are generally absent.

 

3) Depending on the circumstances of your mom’s death, you maybe experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  In the case of my father, his illness was long and extremely painful.  As one of his caregivers, I was an integral part of his dying process, which was unfathomably difficult. I felt like I had been through a trauma. Accidental and premature deaths very often induce PTSD in survivors and loved ones.

 

4) Many people report developing anxiety after the death of a parent or sibling with whom they had a difficult (or even severed) relationship. While this person may have been destructive in their lives, [s]he is still someone of central importance. Feelings of longing for what that person should/could have been to them are very common. The loss is every bit as powerful as the loss of a close relationship. The anxiety in this case can reflect feelings of self-blame and guilt in addition to the grief.

 

While these reasons make sense and certainly apply, my own thoughts on grief and anxiety are a bit different.  To me, the pain of losing someone important to us can feel like it is literally too much to bear. So, our brains send us into panic as a way to protect us. If I am having a panic attack, there is no room to directly wrestle with my grief because I am just trying to get through the next hour. As awful as they are, my panic attacks allowed me to be so consumed with them that I could escape, just for a while, from the extreme grief and despair that had enveloped me. (Just my theory—not scientifically proven…)

 

Whatever the reason, it is clear that anxiety—particularly panic attacks—is connected to the grief experience. However, unlike grief, panic attacks are treatable. I hope you can find a therapist or counselor (one specializing in grief, if possible) or/and a doctor to support you with medication. Many people are also helped by a grief support group. Grieving alone can make anxiety even worse.

 

To the author of this question, please email us and let us know how you are. We are thinking of you.

16 thoughts on “Grief & Anxiety

  1. I lost my brother in April all of the above is what I feel he was my best friend he died of liver cancer it was the worse thing I have ever been thru I take zanax it helps and got cbd oil from health food store it’s been hard I live in Syracuse he lived in Fla. meet his friends some not so much most of them did not honor his will very sad he was into music wrote many songs knew a lot of people in the music industry one day at a time just had a new grand baby that was born a wk. ago it helps good luck prayers for you

    1. Thanks for sharing and we are terribly sorry about the loss of your brother. Actually, studies have shown that the death of a sibling is one of the most difficult losses and takes many years to fully accept and integrate. I hope that his music is a lasting legacy for you. Congrats on becoming a grandmother. Take care of yourself,
      Mags and Abs

  2. Thank you it is very hard still some days it’s unbearable aniexty,panic attacks nightmares I was with him in his last days it was awful just awful… I just found out who my brother knew and hung around with…Tom Petty Cosby,stilled and Nash Michael Keaton River phoniex and his whole family the list goes on and on he was do humble never even mention it I do have a lot of his music it does comfort me to hear him but I know in my heart a piece of me is also gone

  3. Sorry for your loss my sister passed away Nov 15 1977 I was 15 and she was 26 it was a sudden death I devastated and her had 2 young children I was told by other family members not to cry in front of her children so I bottled it up and didn’t grieve please go to a therapist and talk about it get out don’t let death eat you alive sure your life will never be the same but you can work through this it’s a hard time for me because Nov is a day away but I know how to get through it on my own therapy was the best thing I did for myself

  4. Hi Mary,

    It is good to hear that you found a good therapist and are able to heal from that awful loss. I think so many adults are afraid that crying in front of children will hurt them (as if they won’t feel loss if we don’t cry in front of them). Of course, the opposite is true. Children and teens need to see that when sad losses happen we need to grieve and that they have a right to grieve as well. I am glad that you are giving yourself the chance to feel anything you need to now (and setting an example for the rest of the family). Mags

  5. I’m 40 years old and I lost my brother 3 years ago. He went into cardiac arrest at 36 & was hospitalized. It was discovered that he had an anoxic brain injury. He lived in a vegetative state for several years. Then, Three years ago he passed way. It literally rocked me to the core. I’ve tried to move on by putting a smile on for the outside world. However, the pain and anxiety run deep inside of me. My father passed away just 5 months prior to my brother’s passing – that was really tough. However, loosing my brother has left a huge void and pain in my heart. Sometimes I feel that pain physically. I have horrible anxiety/panic attacks. I work through them with breathing excersises, excersising and talking it out with my other siblings. It’s been three years. When will the pain & anxiety get better?

    1. Hi Sue,
      Losing a sibling is often one of the hardest losses of all. There has been research showing that the loss a sibling involves a very extended and intense grieving time. While we never get over losses of people we love, the intensity of the grief does change. But 3 years is not a long time (even if it feels long). It sounds like you have a great support system in your other siblings. You may want to think about finding a grief therapist as well….just to get even more support. Also you are dealing with the loss of your father as well as your brother, so it is even more intense. Go easy on yourself, it sounds like you are really taking care of yourself in the best way you can. Much love, mags and abs

  6. We lost our dad almost 43 years ago at age 51, my oldest brother in 86 at age 41 and my baby brother in 2005 at age 42. All 3 of them had cancer, therefore we had time to “adjust” (if one can) to the loss we knew was to come. Then almost 3 years ago we lost our uncle who had lived with us from the time I could remember things (I’m the oldest of 4 girls) and almost 2 weeks after his wake I lost my closest sister-inlaw who had been fairly healthy and was very unexpected. However the hardest death of all has been that of my last brother March 4 of last year. He had been having some problems with high blood pressure, chest pain and was scheduled for hernia surgery the following Wednesday. I talked with him on the phone Wednesday, March 1st, and he sounded very down, helpless and hopeless and I didn’t say anything to encourage or uplift him and the guilt is almost unbearable, at times I think I’m gonna go nuts from it. I love my family very much and have always tried to be there for all of them, but I feel like I let him down terribly when he needed me the most. I actually feel responsible for his death sometimes although I wasn’t there. He was all alone like he was most of the time, we called for 2 days trying to get hold of him. My sister and her husband finally called the police the second day to get in the house. He was dead and was so far deteriorated we had to have him cremated which made it even more horrible. He had a very difficult life, was disabled thus on a fixed income and I feel I let him down in every way. He died alone, none of us (his sisters) had seen him in over a month, which was really not that unusual, but it hurts so much to know he was all alone dealing with his many problems and, worst of all, I believe died not knowing how much we loved him. (Our mother has told us girls he never believed we loved him and even accused us of being mean to him.) I don’t know how to deal with this overwhelming grief and guilt. My life is now so surreal I feel I’m living in the Twilight Zone, and at times my heart actually hurts to the point that I have to take aspirin to relieve it. I just wish I could have that last conversation with him again to give him hope and help. I thank God that we did end our conversation with me telling him I loved him then him telling me. I still have so many regrets though and thus the guilt. Thanks for listening/ reading.

    1. Janice,
      You have lived through a tremendous amount of loss. I imagine that all that loss together is very overwhelming. You may want to reframe a few things for yourself: you see it is common to feel responsible for a loss (in part) because we wish we had more control over life and death and if we are responsible…if we could have prevented a terrible thing from happening, we would have control. But we all know, on some level, that this is out of our control. We may wish that a last kind word or an extra visit could change everything, but it sounds like your brother had a lot of challenges. People that are somewhat isolated often feel unloved or even slighted because that is the nature of depression. It sounds like you are a wonderful and caring person, and that a lot has happened to your family, and that you did reach out to your brother but you could not heal him of his issues in life or his health. Just know that you might be putting these feelings of guilt on yourself as a way of coping with all of this loss. Be gentle with yourself, and talk to yourself kindly. If you are able, seek out support from a grief counselor, your family, a religious leader (if you are inclined), and friends…you sound like you give a lot of support and deserve comfort too! Much love, Mags and Abs

  7. I lost my very best friend last year in my home country. I completely got shocked since she only was 31 years old. I had a very difficult year so far. I lost my grandfather 2 months ago. My grief is transformed into anxiety and loneliness. I experienced panic attacks 2 times. Any help and advice can be helpful.

  8. Mary,

    How hard it is to be away from home and lose your friend and your grandfather! We are so sorry for your losses! If you are able, find a grief counselor because you are really dealing with a lot from far away. If panic attacks continue, you may want to consider medication….our feeling is that if you can manage them early on, it may prevent things from getting much worse. Also give yourself the time and space to grieve. Much love, Mags and Abs

  9. I was really hit with anxiety and panic when I found out my dad had a brain tumor. he was supposed to be with us 18 months but 18 months turned into only a few months. He never came home again. I would work all day long and then sit with them at night and feed him because he couldn’t see his food. Often the visions of him laying there and so helpless come through my mind and I end up floating. During the time my dad had his tumor, I needed surgery for my neck to be fused. My mom was already at loss for words over my dad because he was the love of her life. Now she had to worry about her daughter to. My brother unfortunately died at 42 so I was the only one left. I stayed with my mom up at the hospital the night of my dad’s surgery and it was the scariest night ever. Something that’s very hard to get out of your mind and I didn’t realize the months after would make it twice as hard. Two years later my mom ended up having a stroke and on the way to the hospital had a hemorrhagic stroke but lived a few days. This was in the same exact month as my dad which is March. I couldn’t handle looking at her being the strong person that she was now this week person laying in the hospital bed with tubes in her mouth and nose and arms. they said there was no hope and because I was the power of health I had to make the decision to remove everything. It was only a few short days later I held her hand when she took her last breath. All these visions play out in my head many times. It is very hard to get over that feeling of Lost. My mom was my best friend and she was the person I’ve always lean on. That’s what really took my post-traumatic stress disorder to a new level.

    1. I imagine that you do have PTSD. You have the flashbacks and the anxiety and depression. It is really important to get it treated — through therapy and or meds. You sound like you were amazing in caring for your parents, and there is no cure for grief. However, the PTSD can be treated which may allow for some relief. much love, mags and abs

    2. Hi,
      There is a lot going on for you, and we can only imagine how overwhelmed and exhausted you must be feeling. Please reach out to any community agencies or agencies that help elders (perhaps on the county level) and make sure you are getting some relief in your caregiving for your mom. People often do not know what resources are available in their community…but full caregiving is a lot for you to do on your own and so exhausting. As for your daughter…we are so sorry both about her illness and her estrangement from you. Of course, we do not know the situation but we do know that if she is overwhelmed and angry herself …you might be the person that it is easiest to take it out on. You are her mother and will always love her, no matter what. Do you think she feels resentful that you are there for your mother and not able to help her as much? Sometimes, the best way to understand is just to talk with her and really listen to what she has to say. “It seems like you are really angry with me, is there something I have done.” The thing is that if she has comments you can just say “thank you so much for being open with me, I hear what you are saying, etc.” Your grandchildren may also feel more burdened if you are less available for their Mom or they may just be taking their cue from her. During times of enormous stress, family issues come up but even if your daughter or grandchildren are upset, it does not have to sever the relationship. You are dealing with so much right now. Do you have any support system yourself… a therapist, a spiritual leader you can speak with, a good friend. It sounds like this caregiving is going to be for a while and you really need the support. You also sound like an amazing mom and daughter. Let us know how you are, mags and abs

  10. First of all things; thank you for this sight. Just a few minutes into reading all of the posts; comments and replies, I’ve completely regained my strength & composure, doing enough to add my own post to all those “heartfelt posts” before mine. I have experienced a tremendous amount of loss through deaths, in my lifetime of 62yrs. Grieving over cousins, aunts & uncles, friends, classmates and grandparents; is overwhelming at times. 2 yrs ago my Mom was struck down by a car, as she attempted to cross 6 lanes if just highway. Numerous surgeries and care helped put her back together again without taking her life; Lord knows I am forever grateful for her more loving with me, caring for her myself, 24/7. Then Feb 10th, 2018 my oldest child was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, single Mom with 4 children. She chose parenting at age 17yrs old, while graduating from high school and I am “extremely” proud of all her accomplishments; mostly for my amazing grandchildren. Her battle with this “terminal cancer” they refer to it as, consumers her every thought these days. I’m 3hrs away from her and it pains me terribly not to have the luxury of being with her, every ray. The first year of her battle and into her 2 serious surgeries, I have been by her side every step of the way. But since I’ve taken on caring for my Mom, my daughter has withdrawn from me, distancing herself from me, speaking harshly over social media and referring to me very angrily. My strength to be her strength and support is quickly diminishing, I feel it slipping so far away from me that I’m in fear of not having the ability to regain my composure to help her, or my Mom or even myself through any of this nightmare; not to mention my grandchildren who have become very “estranged” with me. We have always been close, my only granddaughter just turned 18yrs old and had a beautiful celebration gathering at home with friends & family. On her board of “Memory Lane” she included many friends, family & her Dad’s parents, but not one of me. I questioned her, she commented; “It’s all about me Grandma, not you.” I simply said, “so they are, and I am not?” My daughter abruptly intervened, loudly voicing to me; “REALLY MOM? You are so selfish!” I feel like I have already lost my daughter and my grandchildren. I’m truly (slowly) losing myself. Any insight or advice or comments on my wrongful actions or thinking, it’s greatly appreciated!

  11. Hi update with corrections on my earlier post. Mom was struck by a car in 2016, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer 2017. Thank you!

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