Feelings of Fear and Vulnerability in Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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We've written in the past about the 'grief lens' and how it can impact one's overall outlook on themselves, others, and the world around them. Sometimes this lens can be constructive and open-minded, but often it's angry, pessimistic, or fearful (among many other things). It's not abnormal or wrong for death to change the way you see the world, however some of these experiences - like fear and vulnerability - can be distressing and can limit the way you interact with the world.

When a person has actually experienced a nightmare in real life, the world sometimes assumes an ongoing dark and sinister tone. It would take a while to outline all the reasons why the world can look scary and dangerous after the death of a loved one. Here are just a few reasons, with links to more comprehensive articles:

The bottom line is, you've learned that terrible things can happen. Sometimes they happen at random and sometimes they happen at the malicious or careless hands of someone else. What's worse is that, no matter how diligent and careful you are, there is only so much you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Life is uncertain, and uncertainty can be scary.

Coping with feelings of fear and vulnerability:

The following are a few suggestions we've come up with for coping with feelings of fear and vulnerability after a death. That said, there are many ways to cope and we'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments below this article.

1. Don't be afraid of one-on-one counseling: First-things-first, we recommend counseling to anyone who feels they would like a relatively objective person to talk to. It never hurts. Pertinent to this conversation, though, if you are experiencing fear that is causing you panic, nightmares, flashbacks, or frightening intrusive thoughts, then you may want to talk to a counselor who specializes in trauma. Grief and trauma responses exist on a continuum. Sometimes a person can come up with ways to manage these responses on their own and other times they may need a little help processing their experiences and finding ways to cope with them.

2. Reality-check yourself: Just as the dark of night may make you predisposed to interpret a harmless tree branch tapping on your window as a cat burglar (or worse); death may make you predisposed to view benign people and situations as scary or dangerous. We've all been there, sometimes a person can get so caught up in the story they're telling themselves that they ignore what is more likely to be true. This is why we suggest you take your specific feelings of fear and vulnerability to task by:

  • Searching for the evidence that your beliefs and assumptions are true
  • Searching for alternative explanations for your beliefs or assumptions
  • Opening your dark closet to see if there is really monster inside (i.e. facing your fears)

3. Learn to tolerate uncertainty and risk: This is a larger discussion, which we plan to have someday soon. The fact of the matter is, life is full of risk and uncertainty and this reality can cause a person a great amount of anxiety and fear. Intolerance of uncertainty, which is the tendency to react negatively to situations that are uncertain, has been linked to PTSD in bereaved individuals as well as fear-based intrusive images, avoidant responses, and hyperarousal (Boelen, 2010) For our discussion here, the first step is to consider whether intolerance of uncertainty may be a barrier for you.

4. If you are alone, lonely, or isolated, seek contact: After the death of a loved one, people sometimes isolate and/or experience feelings of loneliness. Perhaps the person feels abandoned or alienated by others, perhaps they want to avoid grief triggers, or perhaps they're just generally mad at the world. We get it. But as commonsense, as it may seem to run away from a world that makes you feel vulnerable and scared, isolation may actually increase feelings of mistrust or fear.

Intentional isolation is pretty much the same things as avoidance, and although it seems counterintuitive, chronic avoidance typically causes fears and anxieties to snowball.  Without forcing yourself to face the people and experiences you fear, you will never have the opportunity to learn that you are brave enough to tolerate them (note: I'm not referring to experiences that are truly dangerous and threatening).

Further, loneliness and isolation can cause a person to interpret experiences in a less trusting way than their non-lonely peers. Loneliness expert John Cacioppo explains this phenomenon in a 2008 interview with U.S. News and World Report,

"We think that lonely individuals feel threatened, and because of that feeling of threat, they're not certain they can trust others. When you see something positive happening to others, you're not sure if you're included, so you're aloof, demanding, or critical."

5. Seek comfort: We all have our unique comforts when we are scared or sad. For me, I like to turn on the TV and watch something mindless or funny. No joke, when I was going through a particularly fearful period back in grad school I watched the series Roseanne in its entirety, probably 3 times through. It helped me get out of my fearful frame of mind and made me laugh.

What helps you get out of your fearful frame of mind? Do you turn on all the lights? Scroll through Instagram? Snuggle under a large comforter? Read food blogs? Call your best friend? It's a good idea to know what helps before entering the fear-spiral.

6. Laugh at yourself: We've said it before, laughter is considered a mature coping mechanism. If you can, finding ways to laugh at the situation can help put things into perspective and makes space for an emotion that, in many ways, counteracts the fear.

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26 Comments on "Feelings of Fear and Vulnerability in Grief"

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  1. Jason  March 3, 2023 at 6:44 am Reply

    Thanks for that my dear friends!

  2. Kane Williamson  June 1, 2022 at 6:41 am Reply

    Many people who are grieving experience feelings of anger. They may direct their anger toward themselves, god, or the person who died. Sometimes, they may even direct their anger towards others. This anger is a normal part of grieving and can be dealt with in healthy ways. Some people express their anger through physical activities, such as exercising. Others report feeling relief when the person they lost dies.

  3. Danielle  April 23, 2022 at 5:43 pm Reply

    Thankyou all for sharing your feelings! Reading them alarms me to the horrible grief you are going through- I send my love to you all and hope you find comfort. For me, I have only just realised that the reason I feel scared is not about the horror of the two consecutive codependent, violent and abusive relationships I’ve been in. It’s linked to the fear provoked when my beloved partner, 12 years ago, had cancer and did euthanasia. I thought I was choosing partners with difficulties due to lingering issues and now I have stronger boundaries so won’t repeat that. But the thing that remains, is this sense of fear and lack of confidence, at a subconscious and conscious level. ‘I can’t save people. I deserve to feel safe and confident even in an uncertain world. ‘ These are affirmations I’m saying to myself after realising this. 12 years on!! Us humans are so deep and complex and also, so simple -we just want love. Sending love to you ❤️❤️

  4. Christine  February 26, 2022 at 5:17 pm Reply

    In 2018 my mom passed away shortly before Covid. We were able to have a small family ceremony for her, but not the kind of service she would have wanted. Her death was not easy and I was with her when she died. She had dementia that would come and go and I wanted her to die. But actually witnessing her death has left me traumatized. This past November a beloved friend took his own life. He was a shining example of what a human being should be. Compassionate and filled with love. My mother-in-law passed away this past January. Almost two years to the date of my own mom. I have been filled with such horrendous anxiety, and I am trying understand all of this. It started right after my mother-in -law passed away. I have a fear now that I will not be able to cope well with the the deaths of loved ones in my life in the future. My husband , my sister, my brothers etc. A sense of paralysis has set in which is terrifying. I too feel like I am extremely disoriented and fighting life instead of accepting the uncertainty of it. It feels like life has turned upside down and I am scared.

    • Christine  February 26, 2022 at 5:22 pm Reply

      My mother passed away in 2020……sorry for the correction.

  5. Marcela  February 11, 2022 at 4:45 pm Reply

    I lost my husband almost three months ago, this is getting harder day by day, I think I smell his body smell, I feel fearful, at times I don’t want to be here at home but once I am outside I feel afraid and want to comeback home as soon as I can. My son seems to be taking it better , I am the one that it’s a mess I feel panicked and anxious in the morning, I can’t sleep normal hours I feel afraid of doing things, I constantly worry about my loved ones, I’d say my husband’s passing was not too sudden , he died with Covid 19 complications, the moment they transported him to the ICU I kinda felt he wasn’t going to make it, and I didn’t properly say goodbye he was isolated, so was I because I became ill too, I feel upset that he died and I couldn’t hug him for the last time, I tried to do things that we used to, we both loved music, he was a musician, but I can’t even listen to a song that I want to cry, I need a lot of help.

    • Litsa  March 2, 2022 at 12:42 am Reply

      Marcela, I am so sorry for all you are coping with. Have you considered joining a support group or seeking a therapist?

  6. kearamill  December 3, 2020 at 9:00 am Reply

    When a person has actually experienced a nightmare in real life, the world sometimes assumes an ongoing dark and sinister tone. It would take a while to outline all the reasons why the world can look scary and dangerous after the death of a loved one.

  7. Karen Busch  May 16, 2020 at 9:17 am Reply

    Sometimes I feel that my tears have become my best friend now that my husband is slowly dying of a disease for which there is no cure. I find the best release for my fears and anxiety, my uncertainty and pending loss is my writing. I write when I’m happy, I write when I’m sad, I write when I have memories to share or people now long gone who were so much a part of my life that has led me to where I am today. I asked my counselor for a “toolbox”, tools that could help me through the most difficult time grieving before a death but for what was and what will never be again. She said, “you already have the most powerful tool, your writing”. She was right and I began a journal that helps me daily with my feelings and my fears. For everyone who is suffering or who has, look into what you already have that will help to create a bridge to strengthen your anxiety, your need to release and eventually move on.

  8. Kelly Lamb  January 22, 2020 at 12:26 pm Reply

    My husband of 14 years passed unexpectedly just 8 weeks ago. We had recently sold everything to become expats in Spain. On the one hand, it was a gift that we were able to go through our home together, not knowing that he would be gone from this world. On the other hand, I have no place to go home to. And I do miss our home, our life, our animals, or routine. I am literally taking it day by day, but I feel so paralyzed at times, having no idea what I should do next. I do having feelings of not wanting to be here myself, because I’m so tired of trying to be strong. I just don’t want to do it anymore. And now, most especially because the one person in my life who had my back, and supported me in everything, is gone.

  9. Winnie Maron  November 21, 2019 at 8:07 am Reply

    It is apparent that the author is a statistics
    geek. I like how he writes and writes facts.

  10. Orlando  November 19, 2019 at 8:53 am Reply

    Besides, the info is quite cutting-edge, so just like it.

  11. Murray  November 19, 2019 at 6:02 am Reply

    I liked the guide and assume you have more such stuff?
    If yes, so please note it since it’s somewhat uncommon for me at the current moment, and not
    just for me personally, that is my opinion.

  12. Karen  October 3, 2019 at 11:45 am Reply

    My husband hung himself in our home and I found him. That was May 19, 2017. I was lying in bed today, having had another night of crippling anxiety when a little voice inside me said ” you’re vulnerable”. In that moment, I truly understood the depths of that word. Just knowing he was in the world made me feel safe, even if we weren’t in the same city for a time. I fear everything. I’m really trying to get a toe-hold on this by doing affirmations , positive imagery, meditation, etc. Days like today all I can do is accept that this is how I feel. I miss him so much.

  13. Jonathan  September 19, 2019 at 10:53 am Reply

    Thank you for some perspective. I’ve lost my Mum six years ago and my equally important stepmum just seven weeks ago. I’m also a front line social worker working children and families. Naturally, I am off work as a result and they are now putting pressure on me to come back in despite my vulnerability.

    I have a loving partner and family but even they can’t help with the anxiety since we’re trying to support each other’s anxieties first before we try to deal with our own. The counselling I’ve had (just the one session) did help just to have an impartial overview of what I am dealing with.

    It’s the risk that’s the killer, those unanswerable questions….. What will happen to dad? How can I let the grief out even though I’m trying to block it? What will happen at work? I think the counselling will help with that, but we must help ourselves in having pre-prepared questions to get the most out of it

  14. Debbie  July 27, 2019 at 8:50 am Reply

    I stumbled across this site while wondering, “what the heck am I so afraid of?” I lost my boyfriend of 26 years on 5/31/18 and can’t seem to shake this feeling of terror. I have no idea where it’s coming from and what exactly it is that’s terrorizing me. Tommy lived across the street from me and his family sold his house so now I have strangers living in the house that I spent so much time in. That hurts. We had lots of friends in the neighborhood and I find myself avoiding them at all costs. Invites are turned down because I’m afraid I’ll lose it when I see the couples we hung with sitting together, laughing and still being “alive” while my Tommy is gone. This is definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever dealt with and I see no end in sight. I’m still having trouble accepting that this is it. It’s not a dream, I won’t see Tommy when I get home from work, he won’t be coming over to snuggle at 5 a.m. like he used to, this is REAL and it scares the heck out of me.

    I wonder if anyone else ever felt like this. Maybe I need to talk to a professional after all. Books and websites don’t really seem to be doing me any good.

    I wish everyone well and hope that you’re coping as best as you can. Thanks for listening to my rant 🙁

  15. Clarice  March 27, 2019 at 9:18 pm Reply

    Shortly after my husband died, I began hearing unexplainable noises of different types. I would just about be asleep and a loud noise, ie ‘bong,’ could be heard in a certain corner of my bedroom. I attempted to sleep in another room, but when I couldn’t sleep there, I returned to my bedroom, the one my husband and I shared. I was just about asleep when I heard an ominous voice say, “I’m still here.” Needless to say, I’m sleeping with more nightlights. For awhile these happenings stopped, but now these unexplainable noises have started again. I have been staying at my son’s due to an illness in his family. For two months this has not happened. The last couple of nights they started up again. Just as I’m about to fall asleep, some bonk or whatever will awaken me. Last night I finally put a fan on for white noise, but I heard it over the white noise. There’s nothing in the room to cause these sudden and untimely noises. If I were just lying awake when I hear them, I wouldn’t be so bothered but it’s always just as I’m falling asleep. It is freaking me out. It’s been 17 months since I lost my husband. We had a good marriage- 49 years. Al I going crazy?

  16. Paul S. Brittain  March 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm Reply

    You are right on. My wife passed away suddenly almost seven weeks ago. I have never imagined that fear, apprehension, and sadness could be so deep and intense. I admit to the ignorance of having been one who could not understand the life of those who grieve for losing a loved one. It makes me even sadder that I could never be there for several acquaintances who were grieving. This turns your entire life upside down with no end in sight. At my grief support session today, I said that I think the world would be a much better place if it was managed by those who grieve. sad as that may sound, we lay aside what was trivial in our lives that we could not see before losing a loved one. Prayers for all who post here as well as for the many who we do not know, who live around the world, who are grieving for the loss of one they have loved so much

  17. custom term paper writing  December 10, 2017 at 12:24 pm Reply

    These feelings are very strong and sometimes we can not cope with them… Well, thank you for this useful advices. Cheers!

  18. custom term paper writing  December 10, 2017 at 12:24 pm Reply

    These feelings are very strong and sometimes we can not cope with them… Well, thank you for this useful advices. Cheers!

  19. Catherine Ford-Barbiero  September 22, 2017 at 10:38 am Reply

    FYI – I don’t watch scary movies – they have gotten so dark, vicious, and so much a part of the culture of death – that I just don’t want those images in my head. I am also very conscience about not wanting to open any doorways into that darkness – i.e. extremely scary movies, ouija boards, video games, occult stuff of any sort…..

    These things also crush hope, and people’s belief in God & Jesus – and that I will not put up with for myself.

  20. Mary Ann Simpson  September 21, 2017 at 12:01 am Reply

    This article speaks to me. Having a tough time right now. Having to make some big decisions without my husband as a sounding board. I feel paralyzed trying to figure out what to do. And our neighborhood is experiencing some breakins and thefts recently, which has me on edge. Think it is time for some counseling.

  21. Kathleen  September 20, 2017 at 6:42 pm Reply

    I always thought of fear as a scary movie or a ride on a roller coaster. Since the death of my son I now know fear is so much more. After his death in a car accident the fear of driving became terrifying, so I didn’t. The sound of a rescue truck on the road, or police sirens made me want to collapse into myself. Answering the front door at the ring of the doorbell became impossible. These fears have slowly subsided with the help of my grief counselor, encouragement by family and my wonderful Saturday morning grief group along with the very helpful on line grief sites, such as WYG. With time and continued encouragment I’m hoping the fears that I’m left with will eventually fade. Saying goodbye to the ones I love leaves me anxious and tearful. The fear of exposing my grief is keeping me more isloated than I want . Non grievers think I should be “better” by now, “moving on” less sad. It’s been said. I walk through my days as fearless as I can get, but at the end of the day I am exhausted. I hope one day to rest not because I am emotionally exhausted but because it’s time for bed. Thank you for another good article!

  22. Sarah  September 19, 2017 at 11:15 pm Reply

    Thank you so much. As the one year anniversary just passed for the death of a close friend and I am in a new living situation now, a lot of anxiety and fear has settled upon me. This is exactly the kind of article I needed. Thank you!


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