Why grief feels like fear and how you can help yourself

By Julia Samuel, Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK

Psychotherapist specialising in grief and author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving

 The aspect of grief that is often unrecognised is that grief feels like fear.

The most well-known aspect of grief is Kubler Ross’s Five Stages of Grief and it is very useful to recognise those processes that happen when we’re grieving, but of course they’re not stages, they can all happen within an hour: you feel numb, you bargain, you feel pain, you feel despair. 

The aspect of grief that is often unrecognised is that grief feels like fear. The shock of being thrown into an alien planet where the person that you love has died, sends your body into a heightened arousal state of fight, flight or freeze. When you’re in that heightened state, your capacity to think and make sense of what has happened goes ‘offline’. 

Feeding the fear by saying to ourselves: ‘This is terrible,’; ‘I feel so awful’; ‘I’m so frightened,’; amps up the fear that you feel. What people tend to do when they’re frightened is medicate their feeling through alcohol or coffee, or get on their phone, or eat sugary things - but then they experience the spike and crash, which just adds to the intensity of their emotions. 

Be aware that it’s normal for grief to feel like fear and try to do things that release your body from this heightened arousal state.

Be aware that it’s normal for grief to feel like fear and try to do things that release your body from this heightened arousal state, like going for a fast walk, a run, riding a bike, going outside or just moving your body.  These activities will lower your cortisol and heighten your dopamine, which tells your body: ‘I am not under threat, I am not in a place of danger.’  If you can’t do that, do something that is the equivalent of shifting the energy in your body, like a five-minute breathing exercise, or simply asking for a hug.

By doing something that recalibrates your physiological system, you will have more capacity to both recognise that the person has died, and to think, ‘What do I need? What does this mean? How can I help myself? What do I need to do?’. 

The two of the things that impact your outcome are: your relationship with yourself so that you don’t self-attack, that you are self-compassionate; and love and connection to others. When you’re in a heightened state of arousal, your capacity to connect to others is also switched off which feeds the isolation and chilliness of grief. 

It can help to keep your focus on today, even the next half hour. You can manage today - but the future you cannot predict, so worrying about it is counterproductive. 

Julia is Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK, visit her Patron's page to find out more.