Feelings of Fear and Vulnerability in Grief

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. Once out onto the semi-deserted street, every other car seemed suspicious. It couldn’t be that they were also out retrieving 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 their influence on mood is pretty temporary. For a little while after, and without anyone around to give me a reality check, I viewed the world through a sinister and dark lens. 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 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:

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. 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.

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.

Subscribe, grief-friends


October 30, 2018

8 responses on "Feelings of Fear and Vulnerability in Grief"

  1. 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 🙁

  2. 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?

  3. 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

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

  5. Catherine Ford-BarbieroSeptember 22, 2017 at 10:38 amReply

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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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