When my dad died suddenly a few years ago, I told myself that I was fine. Yes, I was devastated, but I assumed I’d be able to plow through it and keep moving. I was pretty shocked, and my brain hadn’t quite grasped the reality of the situation. I figured I could take a day off, grieve my little heart out, and be back to work the following Monday. (Thankfully, both my family and my amazing boss at the time talked me out of that delusional plan.)
When I returned to “normal life” after my dad’s funeral, I was pretty convinced I could pick back up where I left off—at least when it came to external things. I was very sad, and I knew I couldn’t escape that, but I didn’t think it would impact my ability to get through daily obligations. I assumed I could be OK during the workday, saving my grief for my evenings and days off, when I had time to process them.
Unsurprisingly, that’s not how it panned out.
In the first few years after losing my dad, some part of my brain was convinced that crisis was hiding around every corner.
My anxiety spread to all areas of my life, but it was the worst when it came to worrying about my loved ones. Because my dad’s passing was very sudden, some part of me assumed I’d lose other people in a similarly shocking way if I ever let down my guard.
Each time the phone rang, I assumed it was a family member calling with terrible news. I’d panic whenever a loved one went more than an hour without responding to my messages. My arms would tingle, and my heart would race, and it was like I was back in that initial moment of loss all over again. I’d be unable to think about anything else until I had “proof” that everyone was OK. (As you can imagine, I was super fun to be around during this time.)
Meanwhile, as this trainwreck was unfolding, I’d be sitting at my desk with a smile plastered on my face, staring straight through my computer screen while my brain exploded, pretending I was totally fine.
But as scary as this felt to me at the time, it’s not uncommon.
Many people experience anxiety and other unsettling symptoms in the aftermath of an unexpected loss.
“It’s common for people to develop anxiety and depression after the sudden loss of a loved one,” says Steve Debenedetti-Emanuel, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist at River City Counseling in Sacramento, California. According to Debenedetti-Emanuel, an immediate reaction to loss is often denial or numbness, like I experienced. However, that numbness eventually fades.
“Before long, people will likely move into feelings of anxiety,” Debenedetti-Emanuel says. “Quite frankly, I’d be more concerned if someone doesn’t develop anxiety—and likely depression, eventually.”
I’d be unable to think about anything else until I had ‘proof’ that everyone was OK.
These feelings can be especially tough to process when a loss is unexpected because the path to acceptance is a longer one. The death of a loved one is always hard, no matter how you lose them. That said, when you’re expecting someone’s passing for weeks or months in advance due to a long illness, you have some time to start wrapping your head around what’s happening.
A sudden death, on the other hand, brings with it a whole extra set of baggage. “The sense of their own mortality, along with an insecurity of wondering how they will go on, dominates the survivor’s mind,” says Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., an NYC-based clinical psychologist and faculty member at the Columbia University Teacher’s College.
“It launches people into a future mindset, which leads to anxiety,” Hafeez says. “Whenever the future dominates someone’s thoughts, anxiety usually follows, especially when grieving a sudden death of a loved one.”
This can also send your nervous system into a bit of a panic. “A person is put into fight-or-flight ‘survival’ mode, vacillating between accepting their loved one is gone and the upheaval that sudden loss brings into their world,” Hafeez explains.
Usually the real anxiety comes later.
One potential reason that these anxious feelings don’t usually surface until a bit later is that the immediate aftermath of a loss can be surprisingly busy. You’re distracted by making funeral arrangements, filling out paperwork, and managing other loose ends, which makes it easier to put off the brunt of your grief until a few weeks later when all those tasks are finished.
Around that time, you may start to experience symptoms like tightness in your chest, irregular sleeping patterns, trouble focusing, sudden crying spells, and changes in your appetite. You may also feel a general sense of helplessness or bleakness about the future. (Of course, many of these symptoms can point to other health issues, so it’s important to see a doctor and rule out anything else that may be causing it.)
Occasionally, people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after this type of loss. “If a person learns that a loved one died as the result of an accident or traumatic event, there is the potential for that to develop into PTSD,” says Gerard Lawson, Ph.D., president of the American Counseling Association. PTSD is likely to surface a bit further down the line, as opposed to in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s passing. While there’s no specific timeline for recovering from such a loss, Lawson suggests talking to a professional “if the symptoms are interfering with your day-to-day functioning, even a few weeks later.”
If anxiety is bringing you down while you grieve, there are steps you can take to feel better.
Talking to a therapist and implementing some healthy coping mechanisms can make a big difference—it certainly did for me.
“The first step is to understand there is no right or wrong way to grieve a loss like this,” Lawson says. He suggests making sure you’re taking care of yourself by getting proper sleep, fueling yourself with healthy food, and channeling stress into outlets like meditation or journaling. Basics like these are often the first things to fall by the wayside when you’re feeling down, but they’re important.
Lawson also suggests staying close to your support system, even when it’s tempting to retreat. “There is often a tendency to withdraw and isolate yourself, and that can make the recovery process very difficult,” Lawson says. The key, she explains, is setting boundaries with your loved ones and making it clear what you need from them.
Grief comes in waves, and it can be unpredictable.
“They are looking for you to set the expectations for whether and how much you want to talk about the loss,” Lawson says. “Loved ones who want to help will honor those boundaries and talk as much or as little or not at all, if that’s what you want.” Of course, sometimes your support system simply doesn’t get it, no matter how much they love you and want to help. In this case, you may also want to consider joining a support group with people who are experiencing the same thing.
Above all, don’t put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way by a certain point. Grief comes in waves, and it can be unpredictable. “The most crucial point to know is that people don’t ‘get over’ the death of a loved one,” Debenedetti-Emanuel points out. “Instead, people integrate the loss into their lives.” This means creating a “new normal” that honors the person you lost—while still allowing you to move forward.
Things won’t be the same as they were before the loss, but you will feel more like yourself again in time. If things feel terrible right now, know that while you’ll always miss the person you lost, you’ll experience happiness again. “Grief is a process, and we move from the loss being the lens through which we see everything in the world to slowly relocating the loss off to the side,” Lawson says. “It will always be there, but it won’t always color everything in your life.”
Claire Hannum is an NYC-based writer, editor, and traveler.