Why is Anxiety Part of Child Loss?

It surprised me when I felt anxious after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

Not that the doorbell startled me, or that passing the place of the accident was hard nor that hearing motorcycles made my skin crawl.

But that every single day for many, many months anxiety crept up my backbone and made a knot in my neck.

It surprised me that I felt like I was literally going to explode.  I would walk and walk and walk just to push the negative energy out of my body.

I was also surprised by what seemed to be random triggers-smells, sights, foods, voices, places-that could send me into a tailspin of rapid heartbeat, hurried breathing, sweaty palms and a feeling of abject terror.

I didn’t know it then, but my experience is common.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really.

We all operate in the world as if it is predictable, as if it follows rules.  It’s how we stay sane.

If our minds perceived that most of what we experience has at least a small element of the random, we would sit frozen, terrified to move.

Who can live in a world where you never know what to expect?

When Dominic left this life suddenly, unexpectedly and without warning, my sense of safety and order was violated.

The illusion of control was stripped away.  The grid through which I viewed the world was ripped to shreds.  What I thought I knew about how things worked was proven unreliable.

Truth is, I never really had all that much control, but burying Dominic made that undeniably obvious.

This brutal disruption in worldview created a kind of internal panic.

I wasn’t conciously aware of it at the time because I was overwhelmed with sorrow and the pain of loss.  But my mind was trying to wrap itself around a new understanding of how the world works.

I needed to learn to live in a world where I couldn’t predict outcomes, I couldn’t guarantee safety (even if I did everything “right”) and I couldn’t REALLY plan for tomorrow because tomorrow might very well never come.

I had to figure out how to get out of bed instead of cower under the covers. To get in the car instead of stay at home.  To continue to love the people God gave me even though they may be taken any time.

Anxiety is an outward expression of the inward reality of this disruptive process. My body was screaming what my mind was silently sorting out.

As I have worked on incorporating my experience of losing a child into my worldview, the anxiety has decreased.

I don’t expect to ever live free of anxiety again-how can I when I know by experience what most people only imagine?

But I’m learning ways to deal with it when it rears its ugly head.


And I’m learning that every time I triumph over it, I’m stronger and better able to do it the next time.  





Healthy Boundaries in Grief

As a people-pleasing first born who hates conflict, giving in has always been  easy for me. It’s only later that I wish I hadn’t.  

So for most of my life, setting personal boundaries has been challenging.

But in the aftermath of child loss, healthy boundaries are no longer optional, they are necessary for survival.  

So what are healthy boundaries?

  • Saying “no” without guilt
  • Asking for what you want or need
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Saying “yes” because you want to, not out of obligation or to please others
  • Behaving according to your own values and beliefs
  • Feeling safe to express difficult emotions and to have disagreements
  • Feeling supported to pursue your  own goals
  • Being treated as an equal
  • Taking responsibilty for your own emotions
  • Not feeling responsible for someone else’s emotions
  • Being in tune with your own feelings
  • Knowing who you are, what you believe, what you like


What does this look like in real life?

  • Not being “guilted” into engaging in social/family/church activities before I am ready
  • Letting family and friends know when I need encouragement, companionship, solitude, help or space
  • Keeping or making doctor’s appointments and staying on top of my physical well-being by sleeping/eating/taking medication/exercising as best I can
  • Participating in what is helpful and life-giving to me when I want to and not because I feel like I have to.  
  • Giving myself space and time to figure out how losing a child impacts my beliefs, my sense of self, my understanding of the world-being honest about questions and about struggles.  If I have to take a break from church for awhile, that’s OK.
  • Expecting support from friends and family to do the work grief requires.  If some in my circle can’t do this, then I’ll put those relationships on hold until I feel stronger. I am not required to live up to other people’s standards.
  • Embracing and acknowledging my own emotions.  Not expecting someone else to “make me better”.  No one can take away the sorrow and pain of child loss.  It is excruciating.  There is no way through but THROUGH.  Face the feelings.  Get help from a counselor if necessary.  Join a support group.  Find safe friends.  But I will not be able to distract myself or ignore the heartache forever.
  • Understand that though I share the loss with others-a spouse, my surviving children, my child’s grandparents, etc-I am not responsible for how they are dealing with loss. I may offer help, may arrange counseling (especially for children), should strive toward an environment where feelings can be expressed-but I can’t work through their loss experience for them.  
  • Pay attention to my own feelings and what triggers grief attacks.  When I can, plan around the triggers.  When I can’t, accept the feelings and go with them.  If I need to leave a venue, leave.

What it doesn’t look like:  

Healthy personal boundaries are not an excuse for bad behavior.  They are not to be used as blunt instruments to bully others into submission or to advance my own agenda against theirs.

My boundaries don’t give me the right to be hateful, hurtful or unkind.  They are not permission to pitch fits, make public displays or belittle others.  


And they are absolutely NOT a reason to plaster hate speech across social media.  If I have a personal relationship issue then it needs to be handled personally and privately not publicly. Vague Facebook statuses that suggest I’ve been offended by half my friend list are off limits.

Establishing healthy personal boundaries is work.  

Already exhausted from grief, the last thing I want is more work.

But if I don’t defend the space and time I need to do the work grief requires I cannot make progress toward healing.

If I don’t limit my interaction with those who are unhelpful or downright hurtful, I will be dragged down further in the mire of sorrow and sadness.

If I don’t purposely pursue physical, emotional and psychological health, grief will kill me.

HALTing a Grief Spiral

If you’ve ever been in any kind of counseling or recovery group , you have probably seen or heard this acronym and advice: HALT  before you speak.

It’s a great reminder that I should take a moment to consider my frame of mind before I blurt out something that might damage a relationship or wound someone else’s heart.

I had never thought about it until recently, but it is also a great reminder to us who grieve that what we interpret solely as grief (which we cannot control) might be compounded greatly by other things  (some of which we can control).

So I am learning to apply the HALT acronym to a grief spiral in my own life.

When I feel absolutely overwhelmed and the grief wave is dragging me under I ask myself, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired?”


H-Am I hungry?

  • Have I eaten something within the past 4-6 hours?
  • Have I had enough water in the past 2 hours?
  • Have I eaten too much sugary food today (this can impact blood sugar even if I’m not “hungry”)?
  • Am I eating a balanced diet overall?
  • Am I grazing and eating too much?
  • Do I have an underlying physical condition such as hypoglycemia or diabetes which may impact my ability to think clearly?

Some of us eat our feelings and some of us avoid food when we are stressed.  Either can be terrible for health and for mental well-being.

If you have ever been diagnosed as borderline diabetic in the past, intense grief can send you over the edge-request that your primary health provider do an A1-c test, not just measure fasting glucose.

If you don’t feel like eating, make it a non-option.  Set an alarm on your phone if you have to and consider food as medicine.  If you aren’t fueling your body appropriately, you just simply don’t have the energy to do all the things grief requires.

If you find you are overeating, try to portion out healthy and lower calorie snacks that can help you feel full but are lower in sugar and empty calories. Or instead of eating, try taking a walk or doing a few minutes of impromptu exercise.


A-Am I angry?

Somewhere in life I embraced the idea that anger is “bad”.   When I am angry, I feel the anger and also feel guilty for being angry.

  • Has someone said something that upset me?
  • Has someone done/not done something that frustrates me?
  • Am I angry at God?
  • Am I angry at my missing child for leaving/for choices they made/for not saying “good-bye”?
  • Am I angry at myself for not protecting my child (even if it was not in my power to do so)?
  • Am I angry with my spouse or other close family members because they are not grieving in the same way as me?
  • Am I angry that the world goes on without my child?
  • Am I angry at friends that haven’t “been there” for me?

Acknowledge your anger.

If it is toward a person, ask yourself if you can bring it to them and mend the relationship. If that’s not an option, think about how you can construct boundaries to limit that person’s impact on your life, at least while you are experiencing the most intense feelings of grief.

If it’s toward God, express it in a journal or aloud or to a safe friend.  The Psalms are full of “Why God?”;  “Where are You?”;  “Why have You abandoned me?”

If your anger is toward your missing child, consider writing your thoughts in a journal or a letter to him or her.  Often I find that really all I need is an opportunity to express myself. It doesn’t “fix” things, but it makes them bearable.


L-Am I lonely?

Grief is an isolating experience.  

Once the funeral and first few days or weeks pass by, most people around us either don’t think about our loss or don’t recognize its ongoing impact on our daily lives.  There have been many days when I have felt very, very alone.

  • Do I feel isolated in grief?
  • How long has it been since I was with other people?
  • Have I called/texted/messaged anyone today?
  • Has anyone called/texted/messaged me today?
  • Do I feel like nobody understands me?
  • Do I feel like God has abandoned me?
  • Do I feel like I just can’t talk to anyone anymore because of the differences in our experiences?

I have been blessed with some amazing friends who continue to seek fellowship even though it’s been  2 1/2 years since my son left us.  And I also joined several online communities of bereaved parents where I can vent my feelings any time and be assured that I am received, affirmed and understood.

I think anyone who hopes to heal after the loss of a child must have a safe someone to talk to.  If you don’t have friends or family that can fill that need, consider counseling.  There are just some things you have to speak aloud to be able to work out.


T-Am I tired?

  • Did I sleep last night?
  • Am I going to bed too late or waking too early?
  • Am I staying overly busy and running myself down?
  • Am I getting adequate and appropriate exercise?
  • Am I taking medication that makes me sleepy/tired?

I know that for many bereaved parents, sleep is elusive.  And once asleep, staying asleep is a whole other issue.  But without proper rest, you cannot have the resources to do the work grief requires.

If you are consistently struggling with sleeplessness, consider asking your healthcare provider for help.  There are a number of natural sleep remedies (melatonin, valerian root, etc.) that may be appropriate.  And if necessary, prescription medicine can help break the cycle of insomnia.

None of these things-hunger, anger, loneliness or feeling tired-are the root cause of my grief.

I grieve because my son is gone.

BUTany of them, or a combination of them-can make me more vulnerable to feeling worse IN my grief.

I cannot control the fact that I am grieving.

I cannot remove the burden of sorrow and pain that losing a child has placed upon me.

But I can make adjustments in my lifestyle or life choices to make it easier to bear that burden.

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