How to release your fear of death

Death anxiety is more common than you might think. Most people have unconscious fears and questions around death. Yet most of us don't talk about it. But that wondering (even when unconscious) about what happens when we die has a profound impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The fear is often so great and so painful that we protect ourselves by repressing the full realization of death and dying.

In order to overcome that fear and to manage anxiety, we need to both face death and also reimagine it. There are many ways to begin to think about death in a positive way. I have found that personally facing death and my fears about it have eased my anxiety in significant ways. When I first began to work in the field of death and dying my anxiety increased as I was forced to stare head-on into the reality of it all, but then after a short time of really having to face it, I realized that I was growing more comfortable and that my fears were dissipating. I've since been able to find many beautiful ways to look at death, one of them being the comparison to birth.

Regardless of your religious or spiritual inclinations, what is like to think about if birth and death are really the same thing? What if birth is simply the death of something that came before? Just as babies are born from the world of the womb into the arms of a mother, maybe the same happens upon death. And maybe if we listen closely enough during this lifetime we’ll hear the heartbeat of something bigger than we think we know now. Fear of death is really just fear of what comes next. But what if that death is really just another birth?

Last fall I gave birth for the third time in my life, an experience so singular and primal that I can only ever liken it to deaths I've witnessed. As I labored that evening I thought about my father and my mother, I thought about friends I've lost, and I thought about patients I've seen through their final moments of life. It is not easy to leave this world, nor is it easy to come into it. I do believe there's an in-between place, because I've felt it in these brief moments of becoming a mother, and I've seen it in the people I've lost.

We are not these bodies. We are so much more. But we come in as these people and are here for a short time to live and to love.

Are there ways in which you can better face the idea of death? Are there ways in which you can even bring yourself to see the beauty in it? Face your fears in order to overcome them. You can start today by simply having conversations about death with trusted friends or therapists. There are also many other ways to think about tackling your fears that I outline in Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief. I promise that it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think it will be.


resilient grieving claire bidwell smith

10 Helpful Tips for Resilient Grieving

resilient grieving claire bidwell smith
Resilient grieving is the idea that we can take active measures and steps to find strength and learn coping tools in the face of loss, even when the pain seems unbearable.

An evolving field of research has recently acknowledged our capacity for resiliency, the natural human ability to face trauma and loss by finding ways to thrive, become more in tune with our lives, and create new ways to make meaning out of our experiences.

As someone who has been through my own share of grief, and who has seen hundreds of others move through the process, I know that resilient grieving isn’t for everyone. I believe there are certain personalities and circumstances that more readily lend themselves to this philosophy. But I also believe that there are tools and ideas within resilient grieving that all of us can use. More importantly, many of these techniques can reduce anxiety.

Resilient grieving is about being proactive in your grief process. It’s about letting yourself cry and mourn, but also taking a look at your coping methods and earnestly beginning to reshape your life. It’s about not letting your world fall irrevocably apart as a result of this loss. For some people this may feel out of tune with your natural grief process – some people feel that dusting themselves off and getting on with their lives means letting go of their loved one, but that’s not what resiliency is about.

There are ways to stay connected to your loved one and also begin to live a new life without them, as painful as that may initially sound. I really do believe there is a way to balance the mourning process with resilience, and that building resilience will serve to reduce your anxiety and leave you feeling less overwhelmed.

So how do we go about doing this? Here are some basic ideas about resilient grieving that you can begin to employ in your life right now.

Re-establish Routines

Returning to a regular schedule and routine, despite the changes that you have incurred, immediately soothes the brain and lets our unconscious know that we are safe again. This has a calming effect on the body and central nervous system, leading us away from some of those bodily responses that can easily trigger a panic attack.

When my mother died I took a year-long hiatus from college. I had no sense of routine – I stayed up late, traveled on a whim, did nothing predictable. At the time this felt like what I wanted – my mother was gone; nothing should be the same. But in retrospect, I think it would have perhaps been more beneficial for me to remain in school and continue as planned, while still grieving. Being unmoored like that, out in the world, increased my anxiety and my sense that there was nothing to rely upon.

Examine What is Working

Dr. Hone encourages grievers to ask themselves if their behavior is “helping or harming.” This means paying attention to the thoughts you are focusing on. Are you obsessing on feelings of guilt, continually running through a list of “what ifs”, or replaying traumatic images?

These are all normal responses to loss. It’s as though our mind wants to turn the experience over in our heads like a Rubix cube, trying to make sense of it, trying to line up the events in order to reach a different outcome. Again, this is normal and expected, but after a certain period of time we must begin to release these thoughts and move away from them.

If you find yourself continually replaying certain thoughts stop and ask yourself if they are actually helping in some way. If they are not, then it is time to let go of these thoughts. We’ll cover more strategies for “retraining” your brain in Chapter Eight.

Ask for Help

This one may seem obvious but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered who shrink from this in the face of grief. Either they assume that no one around them will be able to truly help, or they are afraid to ask for help. Letting the people around you know what you need – whether that’s household help, financial planning assistance, or simply someone to listen – can ease the burden you are carrying. I think you’ll be surprised by how ready your community is to help you once they have an understanding of how.

Nurture Your Physical Body

This is often the first thing to go out the window. When we are grieving it is common to experience a lack of appetite, lethargy, sleeplessness. Being proactive about your health during this time is vital. Healthy foods, exercise, and rest will greatly reduce your stress and anxiety levels.

Seek Positives

When we are grieving there is the tendency to look at the whole world through gloom-colored glasses. In the initial grieving process, or if you have let things stagnate for too long, we can become mired in seeing negativity everywhere.

For years I could only look at my life through the lens of having lost my parents. I saw only what I didn’t have, and all the ways in which my life was ruined as a result of their deaths. Finally I began to actively work to acknowledge the positive aspects of my life and doing this turned everything around for me.

This isn’t always an easy process – it requires diligence and focus. Sitting down and making gratitude lists, reminding yourself to bask in positive moments and experiences, and remembering that embracing life again doesn’t mean letting go of your loved one.

Distractions

The habit of dwelling on negative thoughts, or what psychologists calls rumination, can become exactly that – a habit. Actively working to break this cycle by distracting yourself with positive activities can help break this pattern. Go to the movies, take up gardening or some other hobby, beginning to socialize with people who make you feel comfortable, can have a profound effect on reducing negative cycles of thoughts that cause anxiety.

Create Rituals

Find ways that feel good to you to bring your loved one into your life. Our inner selves crave connection with our loved ones. Don’t deny this impulse. Create your own ways to continue that bond. Make their favorite meals, light a candle every night, tell stories about them, start a project in their honor or find a way to be of service for a cause that they cared about.

Connect with Others

Sometimes being around people can be difficult after a major loss. Finding the right people to share company with can make all the difference. Take a look at the people in your life and put distance between yourself and anyone that makes you uncomfortable right now.

Also, seek out people who understand what you’re going through. Join a support group, reach out to a friend who is also familiar with loss. Finding ways to feel a little less alone in your grief will be incredibly soothing.

Make Meaning

Finding ways to make meaning of the loss is invaluable to your sense of peace. This doesn’t mean making sense of why that person died now, but rather, finding ways to make their loss and your grief meaningful.

Did your loved have a cause they were passionate about? Continue the work in their honor. Has your pain made you more compassionate? Find ways to use that in ways to help others.

Accept the Loss

A lot of resilience work involves truly accepting the loss. For many of us this means simply facing our grief, opening ourselves up to the changes in our world, and working to genuinely step into the pain as a way of moving through it. This can feel incredibly frightening but doing this work is never as scary as we think it’s going to be.

*This is an excerpt from Chapter Five of my new book, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief. To read more, order your copy here today!*


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anxiety and grief claire bidwell smith

My Story of Anxiety and Grief

anxiety and grief claire bidwell smith
Today I want to share my own experience that you may be able to relate with. This is an excerpt from the introduction of my upcoming book, 
Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, which will be released next week.

I wrote this book to help as many people as possible to understand what anxiety is, how it’s related to grief and the process of digging deeper to move through the feelings that are causing the anxiety.

To get a better understanding of the whole picture, how anxiety and grief work together, I’d like to share with some of my own experience with anxiety and grief:

I was fourteen when both of my parents got cancer at the same time. I was an only child, and the prospect of losing my family was something that loomed over me throughout adolescence. While my father’s prostate cancer was treated easily and he quickly went into remission, my mother’s late-stage colon cancer took us on a rollercoaster of hospitals and doctors and seemingly endless treatments.

My parents were wonderful people. They’d met and married late in life, both of them each other’s third marriages. My father was an engineer and a WWII POW. My mother was a glamorous artist living in Manhattan. She was forty and he was fifty-seven when I was born, and even though my father had three grown children from his first marriage, my mother had always wanted one of her own. I was born in 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia and for a long time our lives were good.

But by the time I headed off to college my father was in his seventies and my mother’s cancer had begun to win the five-year battle she’d been fighting. She died midway through my freshman year at a small liberal arts school in Vermont. I didn’t make it in time to be by her side during her final moments.

My mother’s death rocked me. I was absolutely floored by it. Nothing could have prepared me for it. Not the five years we’d spent helping her combat her illness, not the talks my father had with me about her potential demise, not the school guidance counselor’s sessions. The truth was I never believed she would actually die. Because: Mothers don’t die. Bad things don’t actually happen.

I now understand that these beliefs were at the root of my anxiety. When my mother’s death disproved the two things I’d so fervently held onto, the whole floor dropped out. If my mother could die, anything, absolutely anything could happen.

I took a hiatus from school and moved back home to Georgia to help my father pack up the house. I got a job as a waitress and I struggled to relate to my old friends from high school who came around to check on me. No one I knew had experienced so significant a loss. Everyone was sympathetic but nonetheless, I felt very alone in my grief.

The anxiety attacks continued to surface. I lived in fear of having them, and I navigated a constant undercurrent of panic. I worried that my father was going to die at any moment. I worried that I would die. And less concrete than those fears, I simply felt a yawing dizziness at the idea that life was completely out of my control.

I turned to alcohol to quell the anxiety, and I attached myself to a young man who had recently lost a family member and who was deep in the throes of his own grief. Together we made our way to New York City, and it was there, in a college psychology class, where I realized for the first time, that what had happened all those years ago on the road trip with my high school boyfriend: I’d had a panic attack.

Understanding this was the first step in my healing process. Recognizing that I had anxiety as a result of my mother’s death actually helped me to better face the loss and enter into my grief. Losing someone we love is so deeply painful that we often turn away from the feelings, rather than letting them course through us. But when we choose to push away difficult emotions they don’t just disappear, they simply fester beneath the surface causing anger, frustration, and anxiety.

Find out more and pre-order Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief today!

Love,

Claire