Journalist Susanna Arthur from Psychcentral.com reached out to me a few weeks back and asked me to contribute to this article on the connection between parental death and anxiety for children, teens, and adults.
This topic is right up my alley and is very personal to me. My mother died suddenly when I was 26. Following her death, an enormous amount of anxiety and panic paralyzed me. Once the shock subsided, I expected to be sad, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of panic that would stick to me like toilet paper on the bottom of my shoe. It was an experience that wouldn't let go. Due to the amount of distress I was under, I thought it would be easier for me to die too than to continue living with this level of anxiety.
These often invisible mental health problems are why we must recognize how grief and trauma impacts the mental health of children, teens, and adults.
Over time and through lots of therapy, I've progressed through my healing journey. I've learned how to cope with my anxiety, and although it is still a struggle of mine that comes and goes, it is manageable most of the time.
What helped me most after the death of my mother? Understanding the neuroscience of anxiety, realizing that I am not alone, and finding the courage to tell other people about it. Once I shared my fears with others, they would quickly respond with some form of "me too." Knowing I wasn't alone in this hell was critical. Until I spoke up, I thought there was something deeply wrong with me because nobody talked about mental health problems back in 2005.
To help grieving children and adults, we must be aware of the potential impacts on our mental health. In psychology, the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief are no longer considered a comprehensive view of the grief process humans go through after the loss of a loved one, yet it remains in our culture as the gold standard for grieving. As if there was a correct way to do it.
Grief is subjective. Everyone grieves differently and for different amounts of time. In my opinion, I will grieve for my mother for the rest of my life. My grief is not as intense as it once was in the early days, but love doesn't end at the finality of death. It continues throughout our lifetime.
Grief matures with us, sometimes shows up to visit without asking, and eventually moves in. I don't want my grief to end. It is the only physical and emotional connection I have left to my mother. She lives on through my grief.
"Grief, I've learned, is really just love. It's all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go." ― Jamie Anderson
This quote gets me every time, and what the author describes are the symptoms of anxiety mixed with grief. This is why the article on Psychcentral sheds light on how common it is to experience anxiety related to the death of our parents. Yet, when we think of grief, we don't acknowledge or prepare children and adults for how much anxiety arises inside our bodies and minds.
Nowhere in the five stages of grief does it say, "Stage 1, fear and panic about dying, Stage 2, intrusive thoughts, Stage 3, health anxiety, and nightmares, etc.
My point here is that there's so much more to grief than we typically validate. Mental health professionals, doctors, parents, and others must be aware of how anxiety and loss are connected, especially to the death of a parent or caregiver.
Children look to their caregivers to keep them safe. Children need their parents to ground them in this world and trust that life will be ok. Without our parents or parent figures, our sense of safety dissolves, and without a sense of security, mental health problems arise.
To learn how to cope with anxiety after the death of a parent, read the full article HERE.
If you have any questions or would like to schedule training on this topic, please reach out to me at BethTyson.com.
Beth Tyson, MA is a childhood trauma consultant, trainer, speaker, and best-selling author. Subscribe to her newsletter at BethTyson.com for free resources, tips, and research on children's mental health.