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Jul26MonGrief and anxiety in the wake of loss. July 26, 2021 by Lt-Colonel Lynn Armstrong
As I write this, we are well into the third wave of the global pandemic, and many parts of the country are again in lockdown. Death tolls are swelling, and our hospitals and medical staff are stretched to their limit. With each wave of the pandemic comes further waves of loss and grief. Loss of jobs and businesses. Loss of shelter and the ability to provide for one’s family. Loss of physical nearness and connection with family, friends and work colleagues. Loss of health. Loss of life. The layers of accompanying grief are real and varied.
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Talking about and acknowledging the emotional journey so many are experiencing is critical, and this includes the normalizing of grief and anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion commonly experienced with grief, yet often overlooked.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Anxiety is often experienced with loss as we are thrust into an unfamiliar and vulnerable space. Our everyday life is turned upside down, leaving us disoriented and bereft. As we are faced with the reality of our mortality and life’s raw unpredictability, anxiety and fear can swell in strong, unexpected waves.
Grief-related anxiety symptoms can take the form of panic attacks, hypervigilance, insomnia, irritability and restlessness, rumination, racing thoughts, excessive worry or uncontrollable tears. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, with mind, body and soul intrinsically woven together such that our anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms—irregular heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, etc. We can become fearful that there is something physically wrong, but these symptoms are alleviated when deeper psychological issues are addressed, and the mind and soul are eased.
At its core, anxiety is fear of something, whether real or imagined. It stems from thoughts of what may happen, or that may never occur at all. The intensity of emotions that come with grief, such as overwhelming sadness or anger, can heighten one’s sense of fear and anxiety. All of these are just that—emotions. They will not last forever. We move in and out of them, spending time with one, releasing another, as we work ourselves to a place of “acceptance,” a new normal. One does not “get over” the loss; rather, we learn to live with our loss, making new meaning and purpose.
Many cultures around the globe face and embrace death, intentionally making space for grief with mourning rituals, community support and time. The western world has a more unsympathetic grief culture of “buck up and move on.” With inadequate support and not enough time and space to process our loss, grief can become repressed. We know the significance of a supportive community in such times. Scripture reminds us that “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12:25).
The healing of grief anxiety can be aided by telling the story of loss—when grief is “witnessed” it reinforces that the loss(es) mattered. We externalize the loss and make meaning of it (see Luke 24:13-14). The story leading to the death and the death itself may be told multiple times, with brush strokes of the story becoming broader as time moves out from the loss. Storytelling outlets may include joining a grief group or online grief forum; writing about the loss; acknowledging anniversaries or holiday gatherings; finding a safe friend or family member who will listen; engaging your corps officer or spiritual care provider. A registered Christian therapist may also be of value. Our journey of lament gives language to the experience and helps to make sense of the pain and uncertainty of grief.
Another facet of healing is making amends. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who developed the theory of the five stages of grief, said: “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.” Holding onto guilt can cause immense pain that can bring on anxiety. Holding onto unnecessary guilt is one of the common roadblocks to processing grief. Working through feelings of guilt can help lead to a place of peace and alleviate anxiety. This includes recognizing that feelings of guilt are a common experience after losing someone.
It’s important to examine your feelings and identify what is false guilt. Is the voice of conscience delivering an accurate message? Use an exercise to apologize or say the goodbye you didn’t get to say, for example, through a letter. Visualize your loved one forgiving you. Find someone to talk to about your feelings of guilt. Above all take it to the Lord, the One in whose comfort and forgiveness we can rest, who spoke to Isaiah the words: “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
We have a Saviour, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (see Isaiah 53:3), one on whom we can cast our anxiety (see 1 Peter 5:7); whose comfort when we are anxious lightens our soul (see Psalm 94:19 The Voice). We serve a God who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). We belong to a community, the body of Christ, called to bear one another’s burdens (see Galatians 6:2), to be kind and compassionate to one another (see Ephesians 4:32), to be sympathetic and to love one another (see 1 Peter 3:8).
Lt-Colonel Lynn Armstrong is the territorial secretary for mission.
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