Fearfulness and Grief

There are many changes that come with the death of a spouse or life mate. The abrupt change in circumstances, of course. The emotional and physical changes that grief and stress bring. A change in identity, both in how we see ourselves and how others see us. And a change in how we interact with the world.

After such a death, many of us left behind find ourselves unable to do the things we did with our mates. One woman I know had to change grocery stores and the brands she used because it was too painful going to “their” store. Some people change their eating habits because they can’t bear to eat the same foods or drink the same beverages. It took me years before I was able to make some of our favorite dishes, and even then, I mostly did it to prove to myself how far I’ve come because none of those foods are currently part of my diet.

Something else I’d forgotten about until an email discussion today with a person who’s dealing with the changes that death and grief bring to us, was how truly hard some things were, such as getting new glasses.

For decades, Jeff had gone to the eye doctor with me and helped me pick out new frames. After he died, even though I could tell my eyesight was changing, I didn’t go until I was forced to get new glasses so I could renew my driver’s license. The mere thought of going through the experience alone was simply too intimidating.

Now that I think about it, it’s such an odd thing — grown-up, independent people being intimidated by such simple chores. Admittedly, Jeff and I had done almost everything together for many years, and it did take a bit of adjustment to do those things on my own, sort of like the first time you step onto an escalator. But to be so intimidated by doing things like getting new glasses? Yes, definitely odd, at least in a non-griever’s world.

But grief changes things around you. And grief changes you. There is so much thrown at you all at once, from the horrendous pain as well as the hormone and brain chemistry changes to the way we do . . . everything. Much of life is habit. When we do the same things with the same person all the time, and suddenly that person is gone, we are suddenly thrust into a world where nothing is solid.

And in the fluid world of grief, we are easily overwhelmed and intimidated and fearful. I remember trying to find “rock bottom,” a place where I could stand to get my bearings, and there never was such a place. Well, not never. As much as anyone can find a footing, I have found mine now, though because of my years of grief, I am aware of how uncertain such a footing actually is. There is no certainty in this world, but there is definitely more certainty now in my life than there was after Jeff died.

All of that contributes to the feelings of being so intimidated by the new world we have to deal with that even something relatively common as a trip to the grocery store or an appointment to get new glasses becomes all but undoable.

The only other time as an adult that I felt so intimidated by life was when I destroyed my arm. My balance was off, my thinking was off, I couldn’t do anything the way I once had, and so I was easily intimidated. And fearful of people who came too close. (And angry at those who didn’t respect my new boundaries even when I asked them to.)

I sense this same feeling of fearfulness and being intimidated in old-elderly people for the same reasons — so much of what they knew — or thought they knew — is gone. Their sense of self and their physical abilities have changed. Their interaction with the world is different from what it once was.

I understand that if I wait long enough the same thing will happen to me when I get older, but it won’t be an unfamiliar sensation. (Unless, of course, I’d forgotten what grief felt like.)

I don’t know if this feeling of being intimidated as part of grief is something I ever wrote about before. Because I don’t like thinking of myself as a fearful person, it’s possible only the distance of all these years enables me to accept how intimidated I felt back then by something as simple as getting new glasses, though I do remember forcing myself to do new things so that I wouldn’t become paralyzed by the fear.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator