“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I remember reading these words a few days after my husband died and nodding in the midst of my numbness. In that moment I understood what I was feeling.
You see I couldn’t cry for 4 months after he died. I just couldn’t produce any tears.
I felt this horrible nauseated feeling that would give me nightmares at night and a ghostly presence of myself during the day. I was living in the shadow of my old self and had no clue how to get out. But most of all I did not know that fear was the most prevalent feeling in my body.
The best way to describe the fear is the feeling of being lost in a big, dark forest with wild animals and you have nowhere to hide, or no means to protect yourself. It is always dark in that forest, no daylight whatsoever. This is how it felt every day. And in the midst of trying to control my fears I forgot who I was. I lost me. And gained a permanent sense of being afraid. As C.S. Lewis says so well, the dreading of the moments when the house was so empty was when I was scared the most.
I am writing this letter to you today about fear after loss because it is important to know that even when grief goes away the fear stays.
Yes, it stays for much longer than grief and it is that fear that keeps us in The Waiting room (The place between two lives). Over the last 10 years I spent half of them being very afraid and the other half being very afraid but going forth regardless.
I wish I could tell you that by the end of this letter I would be able to give you the steps to make fear go away. I wish I could do that for all of us. But what I can give you is some tried and true wisdom that will help you find yourself again and find your way back to your courage.
The first few months
You are going to be more afraid after loss than you have ever been before.
You will be afraid of the smallest things, the bigger things and everything in between.
Even when certain things were simpler before loss now they have an additional layer of fear and anxiety. Respect the fear that you feel in the beginning of your loss. Listen to the part of you that tells you to not go to the dinner, the party, take the new job, go on that date. In the beginning, if you push too much against the fear you break. Yes we break. The fear is so strong at first and we are so vulnerable that it is best to say no to a lot of the things that now make you uncomfortable and lost.
Now you may ask… but Christina, how can I learn to be courageous if I pull away from everything because I feel this anxiety. Don’t you always advise us to choose life over grief? And my answer to this question is that in the beginning of your loss it is more important to choose activities, friends and experiences that release grief and fear than add to it. So…going for a walk on the beach instead of your sister’s in law dinner is a more courageous choice than you can imagine.
The first year
You will feel as if you are not as social as before, or as friendly as before or as loving as before. And you will be correct to believe that. And I want you to be ok with it. Yep, be ok with the less social self and the less friendly self and the less loving self.
I am going to ask you to accept that part of you first and foremost. I am going to ask you to love the part of you that finds it scary to love, scary to go out and scary to make new friends. This is grief’s aftermath and it happens to us all. But this is where we are now more equipped to start reentering back to life and finding ways to combat the fear. This is when we must make a decision to both understand the fear and choose to go on regardless. Because fear after loss is an experience that doesn’t easily go away. We have been through so much trauma that the brain and the heart can’t just shake it off with some therapy, a good book and some good friends to listen to us. Unfortunately, we have to learn to live life again with fear that kind of sticks around. No matter how bold I have become in the ten years after loss I am more afraid now than I was before my loss. But have taken the biggest risks in my life too. And this is where my next point comes from.
The long journey
I believe that grief is an evolutionary experience if we learn to reenter life regardless of the fear that is sitting on our couch, sleeping in our bed and driving with us every day. When I realized this for myself, and for all the people I was helping, it made the biggest impact on my work and in my own life.
So I stopped asking myself to make big dreams come true or to prove myself, but instead I created small steps for my day to day experience. I called these 5% plug-ins and they have been one of the few reasons for being here with you today. The secret to the plug-in experience is that it has to be only for today. It has to be a very small step and it has to not make you afraid. I remember very clearly when I started going on small road trips with the girls, or when I got my first paying client for my coaching practice at the time. Or even when I started creating my model of work. It had to be about my today, my small step and sneaking out of my fear. Find things you love to do and do them.
As the years go by we start to be driven by compassion and the need to help others. Compassion becomes the driver and fear sits back in the car. Compassion for others and compassion for ourselves is where we are heading, if we choose to be courageous, despite being afraid. This is when you make dinner for your neighbor who is old and has no family close by. This is when you give money to the homeless man in the street. This is when you start to listen to other’s stories and become a healing witness to them. This is when grief and fear no longer tell you what you should do and not do. You are finally driven by doing good because you know how it feels to be afraid, sad and all alone. This is how I found my way to you.
Wherever you are in the journey, remember to take small steps towards the things that make you happy. And accept this changed self. We cannot go back to where we were. But we can go forward to where we choose to be.