Can the death of a loved one cause anxiety? What do you do when your fear and anxiety become reality after the loss of a loved one or in my case, the death of a spouse?
Is it normal to be fearful after the loss of a loved one? Can the death of a loved one cause anxiety? From my experience I believe that the changes to our day-to-day lives that accompany the death of a loved one as in my case, the death of a spouse drive us into a helpless state, causing us to be fearful and anxious in intense and surprising ways.
What is anxiety?
The fear of something real or imagined happening, is fundamentally what anxiety is. It is the sense of danger but not always a specific one that you can identify.
I found many of the fears that ran through my mind more real and possible than ever before in my life. I became much more worried and anxious about someone else in my circle dying.
My mind and body were reacting stronger prior to when I experienced the death of my loved one, Chidinma. The intense emotions of grief heightened my sense of fear and danger.
What triggers fear and anxiety after the death of a loved one?
I had shared with you in an earlier post about being in a continuous state of fear and anxiety as though something bad was going to happen. Like another impending doom was round the corner.
One of my many fears after the death of my spouse, Chidinma, was visiting the hospital. I had said to myself that I don’t ever intend to visit the hospital again, well at least for the foreseeable future.
When I said foreseeable, I meant not visiting a hospital for any reason for at least 2 years.
One of the things I have often heard people say is that what you fear is what you attract. That fear reveals your core beliefs.
That what you fear can happen, because fear and anxiety have been firmly registered into your subconscious mind.
Can this be true for someone grieving the loss of their loved one? Can this be true for a young widow or young widower like myself? That the fears playing on my mind can happen.
The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. Job 3:25
I visited the same hospital again, less than 2 months after my wife, Chidinma died!
My sister-in-law informed me of two or three lumps that she found on the back of our 4-month-old baby, Josiah’s neck. She assured me that it was most likely nothing to worry about and would arrange a GP appointment.
The news brought waves of grief as my mind raced and wrestled with the fear-provoking image of him also passing away. The thought of another death of a loved loved one sent cold shivers through my spine.
GP surgeries have also adapted their procedures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we arrived at the appointment with 5 minutes to spare and realised that the new waiting area is our car.
The doctor eventually came out to get us and only one person could go in.
The doctor was dressed in full PPE. Considering how I was already feeling, we thought it was best for my sister-in-law who’s also a medical doctor to go in
Within five minutes, I saw my sister-in-law returning and thought to myself, that “Tolu you fear too much, see, it’s nothing. They are already coming back.”
Well, so I thought. She informed me that Josiah will require further inspection and a paediatrician would call us.
As we drove back home, my mind was preoccupied with grief and worrying thoughts.
It dashed from one thought to another like a rabbit digging a hole with its forepaws, pushing it underneath and behind itself, and then turning around and pushing it away in front of it in a frantic attempt to escape from a merciless predator.
We got back home and as I was about to settle, Anisa reminded me of the walk I had promised her. She wanted to follow us to the appointment earlier, but we negotiated and settled for a walk when we returned.
There’s something I am yet to understand about toddlers. They can forget almost everything else but refuse to forget the promise you make them. Then again, maybe this is just Anisa. I was a little hungry and tired but also wanted to keep my promise to Anisa.
I asked her to get ready. She hurriedly put on her favourite pink boots. Wore her sleeveless jacket and carried her bag pack and was ready for the walk. Almost like ‘I better get ready before he changes his mind type.’😂
We began the journey and we enjoyed bouts of stop, start ‘on your marks, get set, go!!’ throughout the walk. She would run and then command me to stop running only to say on your marks get set go again.
The walk was playfully filled with loads of laughter and momentarily, I did not remember the fears and anxiety that were troubling me.
We found and took a shortcut back home not for Anisa but my sake because I was starving and wanted to get home as quickly as we could so that I could eat so 😂😂🤣🤣.
Before we got home, the hospital had spoken with my sister-in-law about an appointment that had been scheduled to see Josiah that evening at about 6pm on the same day.
What did this fear and anxiety feel like?
My heart sank when I heard that the appointment was at the hospital. Overwhelming waves of sad emotions overcame me. I remembered that the last time I went to the hospital was this same hospital with Chidinma. She went in alive and didn’t return home.
I lost my appetite. My stomach churned.
The earlier happy moment that I was hoping to relish a little longer had vanished. Snuffed out like when you blow out a candle. I felt victimised by fear and anxiety as it overtook my thoughts with deafening volume.
I mustered courage and strength, gave Anisa a pot of custard to help me calm down as we prepared for this journey. I found driving to the hospital difficult as the route and journey were too familiar.
I was now driving to a place I didn’t expect to drive to.
The intensity of the gut-wrenching emotions was building up like when someone hurriedly turns the knob volume on a stereo playing a piece of bad music to the maximum volume.
We arrived at Riverside Ward in Bedford Hospital. We were let in by a member of staff, we were led to a bay to wait to be seen.
I saw flashes of the last time that I was in this hospital. Deep slow breaths helped as it felt like deja-vous.
I found the doctor and nurse who attended to us insensitive. In the approach to asking their questions. I felt emotional intelligence was lacking on their part. This could have been observed through simple eye contact because I was almost about to burst into tears at this point.
But then there was no way she (the nurse) would have known that my wife had died. The line of questions made me choke as I remembered Chidinma. I was asked about my wife’s details; I was later asked about how she died.
I felt provoked.
How could you ask me further details about the death of my loved one? I thought for the love of God, good greif! she died here! In this same hospital! Isn’t your record showing it?! But then again, sharing information with departments is one of the major problems of large organisations.
The journey from the reception area to the X-ray room was the hardest as we walked past what I regard as Chidinma’s last surviving route in the hospital.
We walked past the lift which took her to the ICU, we walked past Victoria ward, which was the ward she was first admitted to in March.
Then we walked past the ultrasound department which she did on the 24th of March then to the X-ray room then returned on the same route.
I could see her as vivid as real life as I walked those corridors.
We got the results and were allowed to return home. Josiah and I returned home as we were assured it was nothing to worry about. This piece of information had a dampening effect on my fear and anxiety. while I returned to grieving the death of my loved one, Chidinma.
I wish I could express in words how relieved I was that we were allowed to return home.
I walked out of the hospital as fast as I could, only regained my breath as I sat in the car driving home tired and relieved.
How long did this anxiety last for?
I thought the worst was over.
I thought I had already hit rock bottom; little did I know that there was more to come.
There’s a south-west Nigerian proverb that says:
“Ti iya nla ba gbeni sonle, kekere a ma gun ori eni”.
This may be translated as “we suffer indignities from lesser issues after being defeated by a larger problem”
We returned to the hospital less than a week after we returned home. After several hours of tossing and turning, I felt I was ready to sleep as my eyes were getting heavy at around 2.30-3 am.
It’s been barely 10-15 minutes into my sleep when I was woken by Josiah’s loud shriek. The shriek got louder and prolonged. As I approached the room my brother and sister-in-law were sleeping in, I could hear her speaking with someone over the phone.
It turned out that she was speaking with a 111 operator and was expecting a call back from a doctor. Hot blood shot through my veins as I remembered the dejavu of this when Chidinma was ill. I was told Josiah had been ill for the past two days. He had a reduced appetite.
His temperature had increased as at the last time checked to 38.6 and had Calpol paracetamol and he had thrown up the little he had eaten too.
I saw many flashbacks of Chidinma, it was in the same room that she had a temperature spike and the symptoms described here are similar. The doctor eventually rang and advised that we took Josiah to the hospital.
We were dropped off at the A&E. When Josiah was admitted, his eyes were dull and he was tired too. I mean who isn’t tired at 4 am! We were eventually seen and when he was seen his temperature had gone beyond 40deg celsius.
My mind raced with the question, “Will our son also die?” If he did, what would I do? Can I handle another loss of a loved one?
I feel like I can hear you ask why I didn’t just pray. I decided I was not going to ask anyone to offer prayers or raise any prayer chain considering the outcome of the last one. I decided I was not going to alert anyone who wasn’t aware of this visit.
So, what did I do?
I mean, a lot of prayers were offered to heaven on behalf of Chidinma. The outcome wasn’t what anyone prayed and hoped for. I didn’t bother to pray to ask God to heal Josiah.
I simply said with a broken heart,
“Lord if you’re willing, heal him.”
Could this be what/how Eli felt when he said to Samuel that “He’s God let him do as he pleases?”
I sure wasn’t expecting to have more hope get dashed.
I wrestled with a varied intensity of fearful and anxious thoughts about what would happen if Josiah doesn’t recover.
He was hungry, sleepy and unable to keep food in his tummy which made him more upset. Understandably Josiah was in distress, wailing on top of his lungs, and wanted to be cuddled standing up. I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
He was given paracetamol to calm him down, which he vomited. He was eventually seen by a doctor. I could hear my heartbeat through my ears when I was informed about the course of treatment.
That the course of treatment was going to be antibiotics. I was given the option of taking him home whilst I administer oral antibiotics or they keep him there with intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
The antibiotics they used were the same one Chidinma had used. I was scraping the barrel of strength. The thought that Chidinma was discharged and returned to the hospital harassed my mind. I didn’t want to take any chances and opted for the IV antibiotics treatment.
I had accepted in my mind that Josiah could die.
If that was the case, I wanted to be right beside him. I didn’t want to miss the chance like I did when Chidinma died. I began to take more pictures of him.
I had heard earlier in the week about three brothers who were buried on the same day and also about a father whose toddler died in his hands. I was so overcome by fear and anxiety.
It wasn’t until day 3 of Josiah being in the hospital when I saw that he was making a good recovery that I began to accept that he would live.
It was then that I accepted to have a family member swap with me so that I could go home to refresh.
He began to regain appetite on day three and by the fourth day at the hospital, Josiah’s appetite returned with vengeance. It was as though he wanted to catch up with food for the nearly five days of fasting that he had been on.
Between midnight and 6am, he had five bottles of Aptamil 1 First Infant Milk from Birth 200ml, as well as intermittent feed before lunch.
By lunchtime Josiah finished a large bowl of mash and beef!
I had to start begging him to please take it easy before we get kicked out of the hospital because of his large appetite. I named that period “The return of the appetite”
All of this happened few months after Chidinma died. I have been back to walk the corridors of that hospital twice since then, each time with the same overwhelming feeling.
Josiah also recovered completely from this and has maintained his kingly appetite. We have a running joke in the house about his appetite.
During this period, I discovered two practical ways to cope with my anxiety and fear:
- Being gentle and kind to myself, to whatever was left of my shattered heart: The natural thing to do is to fight fear and anxiety. I found that they got bigger and stronger the more I fought them. Grieving is a scary journey. I allowed my fear to be part of my grieving process. since I was already afraid
- I believe that inactivity fuels fear and anxiety. Sending one on a downward spiral. The gloomier you are, the less the energy and desire to move. The less you move, the gloomier you feel. Leading one into the spiral pit of inactivity, anguish, and hopelessness. You already know what I am about to say. Deep slow breath and fresh air. Be scared to grieve, but keep moving
How do I now feel about going back to the hospital?
I still don’t want to visit the hospital for the foreseeable future.
Have I completely overcome all my fears and anxiety?
I have made some progress and not where I used to be. It is normal to be fearful after the loss of a loved one and the death of a loved one can cause anxiety. Fear and anxiety are normal parts of the experience of grief.
It is how we learn to cope and deal with the anxiety following the death of a loved one that is important.
The long and short answer is not yet because there are two factors at play.
- There will always be circumstances beyond my control which will cause me to be afraid and anxious.
- I am learning how to respond to circumstances that can cause me to be afraid and anxious.
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections on how you have learnt or learning to cope and deal with fear and anxiety after the death of a loved one or coping strategies you have read about.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
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