By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
For some reason last month I made a note to write about fear this month. My old brain doesn’t remember now why I wrote that note to myself then, but I do know that over the years I have come to realize that fear is the greatest motivator for inaction or not finding our voice. Fear invites us to not accept change. (Aha, that must be why I wanted to write about FEAR!)
C.S Lewis, in A Grief Observed, also speaks of it. He says, ”No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
If you search fear symptoms on the internet you get a list of very similar feelings in both grief and fear. Grief feels like fear because it leaves you reeling in uncertainty. If you think about it, most of the things that we think give us a sense of certainty in our lives, do not. We assume that if we live right, eat right, take care of ourselves, and are loving and thoughtful, we will be rewarded and those we love will be kept safe. When the worst happens we then question who we are, and where is God? What do I do? Where do I turn next? How do I move forward? Do I even want to move at all? Nothing makes sense and caring about anything seems fruitless. We don’t feel safe in our own skin. And we don’t know whom we can trust.
Grief feels like fear because fear, in a sense, becomes our reality. If we feel it and believe it we have just created our own reality. We’re in it and don't quite know what to do with it. It’s our worst nightmare come true.
C.S. Lewis said he wasn’t afraid. Maybe. But these are some of the things we talk about in our grief support groups when we acknowledge just how big a grip fear has on most of our grieving selves:
Fear of being embarrassed. We want people to think we are normal and in control of ourselves, and that we are handling our grief well. We don’t want others to see us breakdown and appear weak. We don’t trust our ability to not make others uncomfortable.
Fear of being abandoned. Will my grieving push people away? Will people be unable to tolerate who I now am and not want to be around me? Will I not fit in now that I no longer have a partner? Will friends stop calling and asking how I am?
Fear of not grieving correctly. Bereaved people often need validation that what they are experiencing is normal. What is the right amount of time to grieve?
Fear of it happening again. A parent whose baby just died gets no comfort when someone tries to assure them that them it won’t happen next time. From the grieving parent’s point of view, it shouldn’t have happened the first time! So who can guarantee that it won’t happen again.
Fear of never being happy again. Will I always feel this way? Will I ever experience joy again. Will my world be colored gray from now on?
Fear of going crazy. The state of grief can be pretty frightening if you’ve never been there before. Because it can be so intense, so overwhelming, so disorienting, some are afraid to let themselves go deep into grief for fear they will never return.
Fear of the unknown. What will happen next? How long will this last? Will my partner leave me? What will my life be like now?
Fear of death. Facing someone else’s death reminds us that someday we too will die.
Fear of change. We don’t like it. This is the way we’ve always done it. This is what I know. I don’t know how to do it another way. We have a hard time of letting go of what we know even when what we don’t know might be better than what we do know.
Anxiety and fear have similar feelings attached to them. Anxiety is apprehension in the absence of specific danger where fear is a threat that is recognizable. That doesn’t mean that the fear is rational. In fact it can be quite irrational and make no sense at all. But you do know what you are “running from.” In anxiety it’s just a global angst.
Fear tends to focus on the future, while grief tends to focus on the past. Fear prevents us from making decisions because we are now unsure of our ability to think clearly and make wise choices that won’t hurt us further. Fear immobilizes us and destroys our trust in anything including ourselves. Moving forward is not an option. When we are afraid, we tend to pull back from life. It feels safer to stay right here.
Fear is not a bad thing. Just like all other emotions fear has the potential of teaching us something. It also has the power to hold us back if we let it. But we are braver and stronger than we think. There is something more important out there. Fear is just the teacher.
Courage doesn’t happen in the absence of fear. It happens because of fear. Courage is refusing to let fear win. Courage is reclaiming one’s life in the midst of the rubble that loss leaves behind. Courage is saying “yes” to life even if one’s heart is pounding.
A friend of mine, whenever she saw me being indecisive and paralyzed with fear, would say to me, “Oh what the hell, go for it anyway!” We’d laugh and then I’d take a step forward into freedom.
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
― Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith