Grief, Loss, and Intolerance of Uncertainty

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


I worry because I have a low tolerance for not knowing everything will be okay. It’s as simple as that. I am uneasy about a margin of error – an unlikely event – the single-digit percentage of times things go wrong. Not in all situations, but in many, and particularly those that involve life and death. 

People very reasonably say to me – “The chances of that terrible thing happening are so low – why do you worry?” To which I usually respond, “Well, if it has to happen to someone, why shouldn’t it be me?” I’m not sure whether I’ve always taken such issue with the unknown, but I’m certain that being exposed to loss has exacerbated my fears. 

When you’ve experienced loss, you learn that sometimes you are the person the bad things happen to, and this can make you feel paralyzingly vulnerable. Perhaps loss shattered many of the assumptions you held about the world being a safe place. Now you worry because you’re not sure what set of rules the world plays by. Loss and grief can teach you many lessons. Some of these lessons are useful and constructive, while others make life feel a little more challenging.


Intolerance of Uncertainty

There’s a highly researched and studied concept related to this discussion called “Intolerance of Uncertainty”. We briefly described this concept in an article about anxiety in grief:

“Some people have a very hard time dealing with even the remote possibility of something bad happening. Even if the odds of an event occurring are very low, the uncertainty of whether or not it will happen is enough to cause intense anxiety and distress.”

Intolerance of uncertainty is highly correlated with many forms of anxiety disorders.


Intolerance of Uncertainty in Grief

Another reason fear and anxiety towards unknowns in the future feels especially relevant in grief is that life after loss is unprecedented. Many people will feel they’ve veered far from the path of what feels normal and expected, so how could they possibly count on anything in the future? Further, some people also struggle with intolerance of ambiguity in the present. So everything – the grief, anxiety, ambiguity, uncertainty, and fear – all gets mixed-up in one unappetizing stress strew.

How intolerance of uncertainty manifests depends a lot on the person. For me, it feels like a significant distraction that prevents me from being fully present in my life. There’s often a little voice that pulls me away from otherwise contented moments saying, “Don’t forget, something could steal away everything you love in a heartbeat.” So rather than feeling safe and comfortable tucked in at night in my little house with my little family, I often feel scared instead. 

Perhaps you can’t relate to this concept at all, and, if so, that’s good! That’s one less challenge to deal with in your grief. But if you’re struggling with anxiety and fear, I encourage you to consider how loss has impacted your feelings about uncertainty and the unknown. You may find that your experiences with loss, trauma, and grief have led you to believe that the other shoe will always drop, which has you constantly feeling on edge.

If you’re struggling with intolerance of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety in grief, here are a few related articles:

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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19 Comments on "Grief, Loss, and Intolerance of Uncertainty"

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  1. Bella  April 13, 2021 at 7:23 am Reply

    i came across this blog after talking to my boyfriend about why he’s been not very affectionate and distant as of late and he said it’s because i’ve been so sensitive and unstable in my mood for about a month. i hadn’t even noticed. i’m 19 and i watched my lovely grandma pass in front of me about a month ago and i didn’t even realise how hard it affected me until very recently and i’ve had to come to accept that i’m still hurting and very afraid of everyone around me leaving or dying too (this is the first big loss i’ve ever dealt with) this community is so lovely and reading these posts and comments has made me feel so comforted and i’m so grateful for finding it and being able to just spill my guts to strangers on the internet. thank you.

  2. JP  March 26, 2021 at 1:14 am Reply

    My husband was happy and healthy. He went to work and died and never came home. So, I have a fear that I won’t have a tomorrow. It makes it hard to make long term plans and to have goals. Maybe…maybe, I will try to just let myself adjust to my new reality and breathe. Maybe, I can go without goals or long term plans for a bit?

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  3. Merleen  March 22, 2021 at 9:32 am Reply

    Kathleen K., I was so moved by your message. I told lost my son in November at age 41. I am a Clinical Social worker. I have had other losses, but none like this….I am trying to stay with the pain, honor it, and walk through it….our lives are forever changed. Remember to keep breathing. Sometimes it’s all we can do. So very sorry for your losses. ❤️

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  4. Lizzie Gregory  March 19, 2021 at 2:10 pm Reply

    Wow, this is exactly what I have felt my whole life. My dad died in an accident when I was three and my nan who stepped in his place, died suddenly when I was 14. Every relationship I have ever had has underlying dread. If there was a chance it wouldn’t work out then I was gone. If they treated me like I was worthless then I wanted to stay (it wouldn’t hurt when they finally left). ‘The One’ where I knew the stakes were high and it would work out if I was brave; I him hurt over and over again. Any type of loss in my life no matter what (friends moving, friends having babies who grow naturally distant, animals dying), it feels crushing to me. I can’t wait for people to go already so I can just breathe and stop having to wait for that inevitable moment. I also desperately love and care for the people in my life that no one ever knows the internal struggle I feel. I am so grateful for my husband who saw my fragile inner child trying to cope and is showing me a healthier way to view the world. Thank you so much for sharing what I always felt but could not put into words. Love and healing to you all, L

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  5. tammy  March 14, 2021 at 3:47 pm Reply

    what would be your advice to this my mom passed feb 4th of this year 2021. i seen how bad me and my siblings clashed. my father has been given 6months to live and my sister who cares for him totally for control does not want to discuss any thing as far as financially and pensions she ferls she dont need to explain ir discuss anything for after my father passes for she has poa. i know that when he passes poa means nothing but i feel that she us being sneaky and studf because she plans to share or give nothing tk his other children whar or how shoukd i handle this i get no where with her

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  6. Christine Cosner  March 9, 2021 at 8:41 am Reply

    Omg! I have often wondered what my problem was – always niggling at the edge of my thoughts – bad things can happen. I lost my son – I can lose my other son. I can get cancer – my husband can get sick…I can’t EVER enjoy well-being in any give day because those thought hover. It robs me of my enjoyment of a sunshiny day – literally every sunshiny day. What to do? Thanks for this incredibly eye opening article. It explains what’s happening to me.

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    • Julie  March 12, 2021 at 3:12 pm Reply

      God Speed

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  7. Barb  March 9, 2021 at 2:30 am Reply

    This was a great article for me. I have a better understanding the “why” of my anxiety. Loss of a love one and the uncertainty of life without them creates a high level of fear inside me.

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  8. Kathleen Kulesza  March 8, 2021 at 9:54 pm Reply

    I have so many deaths in my life, my parents, of course. My sister at 27, my daughter 2014 . By suicide at 42. A great person, that gave back to society.
    A Social Worker, Victims Adovocate. Saved lives, but could not save her own.
    Now my nephew, died November 23, 2020.
    My mother lost her youngest child, I did, and my sister did.
    Our grief,is beyond, anything we can cope with, at this moment. Grief does not even describe our families lost.
    There are no words heal are pain
    Life, became what it is, what it left behind is undescriblable pain

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    • Michelle  March 11, 2021 at 11:03 am Reply

      I am sorry for your losses. When I miss the peoe that I have lost. My friend tod me that I should remember that there is no time in heaven. And that physics only works on this realm. So, our loved ones will see us soon, and we are just waiting here for a while. We might as well make good time of our time on earth, and make our loved proud of us. We make them happy by trying to be happy ourselves. This Dvice helped me a little bit. So zi wanted to pass it on to you. God bless you.

      1
    • Julie  March 12, 2021 at 3:14 pm Reply

      I’m so sorry as I see it we only have two choices want to stay in the spirit of sadness and grievance and emptiness and almost an answered anger or we can get together and create new memories and force ourselves to have some fun go on trips and get to know one another so that we can all be there for one another because we’ve all lost so many that’s the only way I see a note to this I do know that it’s possible I’ve had good moments but without people to share them with it’s nothing absolutely nothing. Much love to everyone.

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      • Miranda  March 21, 2021 at 10:02 am

        I lost my mama February 24 25 days ago my life ain’t the same I miss her so much I hate to go into a store I feel like I’m busy out crying it’s to much for me I lost my mama to cancer I took care of her I just feel like my life is over even tho I know it not i just feel that way i feel so mad all the time i wanna reconnect with her so bad this hurts way to bad i dont know if i will ever what ya say be normal again

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    • Julie  March 12, 2021 at 3:19 pm Reply

      Kathleen

      Let’s all contact one another, please in someway maybe we can put the pieces back together that are left here.

      1
      • Julie  March 12, 2021 at 3:20 pm

        I’m sorry, that did not let me finish. And much warm goes out to you.

        1
      • JP  April 4, 2021 at 8:22 pm

        I would like to connect with others if possible. What is the best way to do that?

        1
  9. Mrs Vanessa J Rolph  March 8, 2021 at 3:50 pm Reply

    I understand living with fear, and the vice-like grip it has on your emotions. How impossible it is to accept a monumental loss in your life and how it affects your faith in the world. When your previous, just taken for granted, “good luck” runs out after losing the special person who made you complete, I experienced a major physical and mental malfunction. I was an attractive, creative, happy-go-lucky young woman, full of life and laughter. Meeting my husband was a million-to-one chance, it was like everything just came together, and our lives were perfect in every way after we married. Thirty-one years later, on his 65th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer; he was so positive, so upbeat, no matter what the odds were. But not me, oh no. I was so scared of him dying, all I could do was cry and pray. No-one else, be it family or friends suffered the acute anxiety I did. I found it hard to behave normally, to talk, to walk with legs like jelly, to eat or sleep. Your survival skills kick in, and you do manage to keep going. I became strong and focused on his well-being. The worst part was telling other people, which we did gradually. My voice sounded strange, the words not making sense, trying to downplay the reality. My husband was a true star, so courageous, remaining positive until he could no longer speak. He did not want to die or leave us. Life without him has made me question so many things. I feel I will never be able to live a life without fear of the future ever again. Nothing works properly now, clocks stop and other things go wrong without his steady presence. The magic of life becomes fear of the future, and not having any control.

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  10. Kathy  March 8, 2021 at 2:13 pm Reply

    I lost my husband of 46 years 8 months ago after a very long chronic long term illness and hospitalizations. I held his hand and talked to him until he took his last breath. I’ve never seen anyone die before. I was alone and had to be strong. Life happens. I know that and we knew it was a matter of time. We had a service and I got through that. I made it through an anniversary and the holidays. I dealt with the finances and passwords and paperwork with various businesses and agencies. I came through some pretty gnarly, confusing and twisted hoops. I feel so incredibly uneasy. Of course I know things will go wrong and they do. But waking up to find out that my pond is full of bubbles, the rug I ordered is missing, the engine light is on in my car and now my new floor lamp isn’t working just gives me so much anxiety! This is the small stuff too. Even when all those fixable things aren’t happening I’m still anxious. I try to stop and breathe, to take walks, call a friend or brew a cup of tea. I’m a positive person. I do go to counseling. I am fortunate that I have a close living family and good friends and that I don’t have to worry about money right now. I miss him terribly. He was my best friend. I’m not mad about it. Just anxious and sometimes overwhelmed. What else can I do to get this under control?

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  11. Kathy  March 8, 2021 at 1:48 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. I hear that little voice, too, after 3 major traumas in my adult life. This article describes the effect of uncertainty so well. Many thanks for your important work!

    1
  12. Charlotte Orth  March 8, 2021 at 1:33 pm Reply

    My son, who is 51, has mild OCD but I see this trait in him. He is so afraid that he will not be up to dealing with death, illness etc. He has begun to avoid funerals, hospitals, nursing homes and other places of illness and death.

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