This past Saturday I stayed up late, by myself, watching a scary movie. I know there are brave people in this world who take scary movies in stride, but I am not one of them. “Late” “by myself” and “scary movie” are words should never again utter in the same sentence unless it is to say “I should NOT stay up late watching scary movies by myself.
Anyway, around 11:45 pm, right as the movie ended (by the way, it was a scary ending), my phone rang. I looked at my phone and saw that it was an unfamiliar number. Spoooooooky.
Just kidding, it did feel a little creepy, but my older daughter was out of the house at a sleepover so I had a feeling it was her. I picked up and heard my daughter crying on the other end of the phone.
“Mommy, I don’t feel well. Can you come get me?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said “I’ll come and get you” while in my head I was thinking “I don’t want to leave my house! It’s dark and scary out there! Plus I’m in my pajamas and I have another child asleep upstairs, where it is also dark and scary!
Did you ever have that experience a kid (or adult) where you had to get up a flight of dark stairs super fast before a creepy monster hand crept out of nowhere and grabbed your ankle? Well, my game plan for getting dressed, waking my sleeping younger child, and getting across the dark street and into my car was the same – go fast! I ran up the stairs two at a time, threw on some clothes, picked up my daughter, ran back down the stairs, and opened the door to the dark night.
As I stepped out of the comfort of my home, all alone carrying a half-conscious 8-year-old in my arms, I felt vulnerable. Fumbling I locked the front door, walk-ran across the street, and hoisted my daughter into the backseat. When I was finally situated in the driver’s seat I felt a sense of relief, but I still found that every other car on the semi-deserted street seemed suspicious. It couldn’t be that they also had to retrieve a child from a failed sleepover attempt or that they were craving a late night snack from 711. No, clearly they were mean and dangerous.
I told you, I shouldn’t watch scary movies.
Fortunately, movies aren’t real and most often their influence on mood is pretty temporary. Throughout the movie and for a little while after, I viewed the world through a sinister and dark lens. Without anyone else there to give me a reality check, and in the silence of the night, my thoughts were allowed to run wild. But, I snapped back into reality as soon as the tired sleepover host opened the door.
When the events are real, though, when a person has actually experienced the nightmare, the world and all the people in it sometimes assume a long-lasting 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 world seems random and unpredictable
- You feel like you have no control over what happens to you and your loved ones
- You feel alone and isolated
- In an effort to make sense of your loss, you determine that people are bad/the world is bad
- You are experiencing anxiety because you now know bad things can happen and/or you fear grief emotions
- You fear death and/or have other existential questions
- You’ve experienced a trauma
Bottom line, 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. Even worse, 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.
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, regardless of the tint, however some of these experiences – like fear and vulnerability – can be distressing and can limit the way you interact with the world.
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.