Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

It’s Personal: Anxiety as a Sixth Stage of Grief

Forty-two has been a difficult year for me. Two weeks after my birthday in September, my dear grandmother passed away. She and I had always been particularly close; growing up, I spent every summer at her home in St. Louis, and then when I started college, on a different continent from my parents, it was my grandparents’ house that became home base – the place I went to for long weekends, Thanksgiving breaks, and even to recuperate from surgery. My grandmother was like a second mother to me, and though her death was expected — she’d been in hospice care for months — it broke my heart. In the days leading up to her death, when we were told it was imminent, I knew I had to let her know how I felt and so I wrote a letter to her. Since she’d gone almost totally deaf in recent years, letters had been our main source of communication between yearly visits, and eventually, after a series of strokes, she was no longer even able to write. But I continued writing to her, and then I sent a final note to tell her how much she’d always meant to me, how being her granddaughter was one of my life’s biggest privileges. After she died, I wondered if the note reached her in time.

“She got it,” my aunt confirmed, “I read it to her and she loved it.” She died in her sleep a few hours later.

The morning after she died, I woke up in some of the most aggressive pain I’d ever experienced next to childbirth. I’d been diagnosed with shingles the day before — an infection often triggered by stress (including emotional stress). The doctor said my case was mild and I wouldn’t be too terribly uncomfortable. She was wrong. Taking a single step was excruciating; I was bedridden for nearly a week and missed my grandmother’s funeral.

A month to the day after my grandmother died, I made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize my cat Simone whom I’d had for over 19 years, since she was just a few days old and I bottle-fed her. Fortunately, her demise was quick and not drawn-out. One day she was fine — or, as fine as a 19-year-old cat can be — and the next day she was disoriented, walking in circles, and falling down. The next day her back legs were paralyzed, and the day after that the vet at the ER said if I didn’t euthanize her immediately, right there on the spot, she might suffer extreme and unnecessary pain. I made the only humane choice there was and it broke my heart.

Both of these losses were devastating but not unexpected, and I went through the usual stages of grief — cumulative grief that probably felt bigger than either loss might have felt on its own. Winter was hard but I was trucking along. I started therapy to address the grief, but also to address some parenting challenges I was having, and to help me manage my stress and anxiety in a healthy, functional way. And then in February one of my best friends died from injuries suffered after a horrific car accident — a death that was very tragic and decidedly not expected — and my anxiety has skyrocketed in the months since.

The anxiety is nearly debilitating. I can’t sleep, I worry about everything, I have a hard time making decisions about even the most basic thing like what to make for dinner. While I don’t consciously think it regularly, the worry is constantly there: anyone I love could die at any moment. I could die at any moment. And I need to prepare for this! If I can prepare myself for this, then I can have some sense of control. And if I can have some sense of control, I will feel better, more secure. And so my life becomes a cycle of trying to control the uncontrollable which, for me, means lying awake all night long, every night, thinking about all of the things and what I can possibly do to control as many of the things as possible (I must be so much fun to live with).

The other day, a friend shared an article on Instagram called “Why Anxiety Should Be Added to the 5 Stages of Grief.” In it, the author, a grief therapist, says that grief and anxiety are inextricably linked, and “we experience anxiety after a loss because losing someone we love thrusts us into a vulnerable place. It forces us to confront our mortality, and facing these fundamental human truths about life’s unpredictability causes fear and anxiety to surface in profound ways.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that grief and anxiety can be dealt with – they can be processed and survived, and one can function fully and happily on the other side. One of the best ways to process these emotions is to talk about them (and the loss/es that led to the emotions), as well as the thoughts around our own mortality that such loss may bring to the forefront (perhaps for the first time). And so that’s what I’m doing here (and also not here). I share my experience in active grieving in hopes that it not only helps me heal, but also, in a tiny way, helps to de-stigmatize grief in general.

Grief is one of the most universal human experiences. We all have or will experience loss – some expected and some unexpected. There is no timetable for grieving the loss. There is no linear movement through the stages of grief. Even loss that doesn’t directly impact your day-to-day life (say, losing a grandmother who lives several states away, or a long-distance close friend you hadn’t seen in a year) can have an enormous impact on your psyche and your heart and your general well-being. It may give you shingles. It may keep you awake at night. You are normal. You will get through this. And you will come to realize — perhaps right away — that you will never be the same again. This is the price — and the benefit — of loving deeply.

30 comments… add one
  • MaterialsGirl

    MaterialsGirl May 9, 2019, 3:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Wendy. Anxiety is so debilitating. Now that I’m a mother, I feel it’s gotten significantly worse in that there are numerous things I cannot control that now affect the little person I love so much. And things that are manageable like skin cancer.. now send me into nightmares that any one of the spots on my body could be stage 4 cancer and I could leave her. Obviously I could leave this earth at any time, but .. ya know… the mind has funny ways of messing with you.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy May 9, 2019, 5:24 pm

      Oh yeah, I hear you. I didn’t know that anxiety was until I became a mom (not that that’s true for everyone, of course).

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    Erika May 9, 2019, 4:52 pm

    I don’t usually comment, but this article came at the right moment: right after the perfect storm of grief and anxiety hit and left me feeling devastated and like I was all alone in my feelings. It almost felt like a sign that I would get through this after all. Thank you.

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  • avatar

    Kate May 9, 2019, 6:15 pm

    How do they help you through this kind of anxiety in therapy? Is it CBT stuff? Medication? Both?

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      Kate May 9, 2019, 6:34 pm

      And basically, is it helpful? I went a couple times earlier this year because I was / am going through something with one of my parents, but it was exhausting and after I got through the backstory, I felt like there was nowhere to go with it.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy May 9, 2019, 8:27 pm

      No medication. Talk therapy and guided meditation. It’s helpful in a general
      Sense but in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep I wish I just had a pill to take (but I also don’t want to be dependent on a pill).

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        Kate May 10, 2019, 3:52 am

        Yeah. I mean, there is a pill that works for that, but you’re right, you don’t want to get hooked. Better to power through and address the problem.

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      • Dear Wendy

        Dear Wendy May 10, 2019, 6:44 am

        Sometimes I take NyQuil though which knocks me out.

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        Kate May 10, 2019, 7:09 am

        I love NyQuil. You can get Zzz-Quil too which is just the sleep med without the cold meds.

        Valium is definitely an option if you aren’t sleeping and it’s fucking with your life. It’s just not something you want to take more than a couple times a week. Same with Xanax.

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      • Dear Wendy

        Dear Wendy May 10, 2019, 7:25 am

        Ooh, I hadn’t heard of Zzz-Quil; I’mma check that one out.

        I have always, my entire life since I was a young kid, struggled with insomnia. It comes and goes. I might go months without a bad episode, but typically I have at least a few days every month (usually around my period) when I am just up all night long. In the last couple months, it’s been more like every night I have trouble sleeping. All I can do is keep trying to take care of myself, address the underlying issues as best I can, and look forward to some of the contributing life factors easing up a bit soon.

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        Kate May 10, 2019, 7:36 am

        It’s purple, and I think it’s in the pain aisle, not the cold aisle. The liquigels are way smaller than Ny-Quil, and if you do the syrup it tastes better.

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        anonymousse May 10, 2019, 8:37 am

        I use unisom tablets and have found them to be pretty great. They don’t make me groggy the next morning. I have always had insomnia, too.

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    Melissa May 9, 2019, 6:45 pm

    I am sure you are familiar with her but if not read Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. She is really great.

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      anonymousse May 9, 2019, 9:14 pm

      Yes. This has been a book I’ve referred to many times.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark May 9, 2019, 7:35 pm

    Anxiety is the worst. I have crippling anxiety lately. It comes and goes without warning it seems.

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      Kate May 10, 2019, 4:16 am

      I don’t have like a generalized anxiety disorder, but lately I do have situational anxiety that comes and goes. When I start getting upset I gtfo and do something. I went over to a thing where there are puppies looking to get adopted and they come out to City Hall Plaza on Wednesday’s at lunchtime. I dragged my husband out to walk part of the Freedom Trail and see historic things. I drove 25 mins to a farm with baby animals. Those are all free activities except for gas or T.

      Another thing that helps is cardio + strength exercise where you sweat. A boot camp class at a gym is awesome. Currently I do Beach Body workouts at home on their app.

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      • Dear Wendy

        Dear Wendy May 10, 2019, 6:44 am

        exercise definitely helps! I’m taking a break – maybe indefinitely – from jogging bc my knees have hurt the last few months after a run, but I bike a few times a week and I do strength training at home (all free!). I need to incorporate a class – maybe yoga – or two but I’ve been procrastinating on that front.

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      • bittergaymark

        Bittergaymark May 10, 2019, 10:47 am

        Thanks! I messed up my knee a while ago on set, and had to stop my four mile runs for a while. This could be a contributing factor. I hope to resume / ease back into running soon and maybe that will help.

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    anonymousse May 9, 2019, 9:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Wendy.

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    The OtherOther Me May 10, 2019, 6:25 am

    I’ve been exactly where you’re at, Wendy. What helped me was CBT, a little bit of Xanax (not taken regularly enough to get hooked), and exercising vigorously every single day.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy May 10, 2019, 6:46 am

      I did take half a Xanax last week when I was having a particularly rough day. I exercise a few times a week but not every day. It’s hard to find the time and energy when I still have Joanie home with me five days a week but I probably just need to do it anyway.

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      • avatar

        Kate May 10, 2019, 7:06 am

        Try an app! They have lots of good workouts that are 20-25 minutes. I love T-25 and the new Transform 20 on Beach Body, and they have one woman who “modifies,” basically not jumping, so you can follow her and not hurt your joints. They have yoga, Pilates, and all other types of programs too. It’s $39 a year.

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    SailBobo May 10, 2019, 7:39 am

    It’s not a miracle cure, but I’m amazed at the wonders of 4/7/8 breathing (google it) … You belly-breathe in through you nose for four seconds, hold for seven, breathe out through you mouth making a whooshing noise for eight seconds … I do it every night before I go to sleep (or before naps) … It seems to help … I do it any time I need to relax … I have even checked my blood pressure before and after and have seen it go down by as much as 15 points … Just one more tool …

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    Silvermoonlight May 10, 2019, 12:55 pm

    I rarely comment, though I’ve followed Wendy since her Frisky days. I just wanted to pop into this thread to address the comments of those who struggle to maintain fitness, especially at home: Please check out Fitness Blender, http://www.fitnessblender.com.

    It’s a true mom ‘n’ pop shop of a WA-based couple who began the website nearly a decade ago to make fitness accessible and free for everyone. They have 500+ free workout videos that they design and film in their own garage for every fitness level. The workouts are designed to be able to be done at home, with or without equipment. Their attitude, positivity and encouragement are infectious.

    And for added background, the wife struggled with bulimia for nearly a decade before meeting her husband, and from 2017-2018, was unable to move due to a severe form of neuralgia. They talk openly about their struggles and are just genuine, real, down-to-earth people–such a refreshing break from the cheerleader sorority-type trainers or the angry, drill sergeant trainers that seem to dominate the fitness industry.

    And no, I don’t get paid to recommend them. These guys changed my life at a time when I was really struggling (kind of like Wendy did too), and I just want to pay it forward. Okay, back to lurkerdom! 🙂

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    Rangerchic May 10, 2019, 4:47 pm

    Logging in to second Fitness Blender! I’ve been using them for years. They do have programs you can purchase (and reuse over and over) for a small fee. I’ve purchased a few of these. Basically they put together your workout for everyday for 4 or 8 weeks (depending on the program you purchase). If I recall, they have one for busy people so every workout is 30 min or less. Also, usually there are no repeat videos per program so that everyday is different.

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    ac_iris May 10, 2019, 5:22 pm

    This is so true and I’m sorry that you have been struggling, Wendy. Anxiety rears it head at unexpected times too and blindsides you. After my mom’s death, I would spiral anytime someone wouldn’t answer the phone when I called or hadn’t heard from them by text or phone in a few days. It has gotten somewhat better over the last six years, but I find it popping up in other moments. I am going to seek out a therapist to help with this as well because some days it is debilitating like I am so afraid of making the wrong decision that my mind just races, so I can understand what your dealing with. Thank you for always sharing your journey. Sending you love and hugs.

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    Beep Beep May 13, 2019, 8:32 am

    My father and step mother died together, unexpectedly in a tragic accident in the summer before I started college. I really struggled with anxiety, depression, and a general uneasy feeling that the shoe was always about to drop. Then a few years later my grandpa died, then mom died, then two years after that my step dad, then my grandmother. It was a 10 year period of unending grief. I felt like I was struggling to stand up in the ocean with the waves crashing around, just as soon as I found my footing, something else knocked me down. I think those losses, in such quick succession changed the inner fabric of what makes me, me. Hearing about your losses, I suspect that you may be in the same boat. Somethings cannot be weathered without changing who you ARE, that deep fundamental base that makes you, you. This was something I once feared, I wanted to get back to who I was before my loss, but now I realize, I cannot escape it. One has to accept the dark periods and cleave to the blunt lessons. Like you said, it is a cost of loving deeply and who wants to exchange that? I send you lots of love and strength while you navigate this difficult season of your life.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy May 13, 2019, 9:27 am

      Thanks, I appreciate that. And I’m sorry for all your losses.

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  • Lianne

    Lianne May 13, 2019, 8:51 pm

    Back in my early 20s, about a year or so after my Nana died, I began experiencing near-panic anxiety attacks, and it was usually centered around me dying and the fear of the unknown etc. It was horrible and lasted years. I would lay awake in bed and suffer through the attacks when they came on. I finally started therapy and being really honest with people about how I was feeling. Starting a really disciplined workout routine also helped. That type of anxiety is just awful and sucks. I’m so glad you’re doing things to take care of yourself and overcome this, Wendy.

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