In the days following the death of my mother almost 14 years ago, I was desperate for words to describe the chasm that had opened beneath me. So when a friend who’d recently lost her own mother insisted I read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, I got the book immediately and opened to the first words of the first chapter: “No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear.”
If you’re familiar with the five stages of grief as famously characterised by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, you’ll know that among the well-known DABDA (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) framework, there is no F for fear.
It’s an omission that grief therapist Claire Bidwell-Smith has thought a lot about. The author of the recent Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, Bidwell-Smith had lost both of her parents to cancer by her 25th birthday. The way this grief manifested in her didn’t seem to align with what we expect grief to look like: “I felt enormous anxiety,” she says, in part because “our culture isn’t so great at talking about grief” and in part because she didn’t recognize anxiety as grief. Even the doctors she saw in ERs in her late teens and 20s didn’t connect her symptoms with her losses. “If they had stopped to ask me anything about my life,” she says, “I think we could have gotten fairly quickly to the fact that it was a panic attack.”
It took Bidwell-Smith a few more years, a few more panic attacks, and enrollment in a psychology program at college before she herself made the connection. A class focused on trauma helped her understand that her anxiety was rooted in loss, that her fear was grief. It was not full PTSD, she says, but she noticed some markers of trauma. Once she began to put the pieces together, everything she’d been experiencing made so much more sense.
Accepting the Messiness of Grief
Since then, Bidwell-Smith, whose work helps people process their pain around loss, has noticed just how often grief masquerades as anxiety and fear. She’s noticed too how many people experiencing this anxiety seek her out because they think they’re grieving wrong, that their anxiety isn’t grief at all, or that their grief isn’t following the prescribed trajectory DABDA seems to represent. “I love Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and I’m so profoundly grateful for the foundation of grief work that she laid for us,” says Bidwell-Smith. “But her five stages were originally intended for the dying and later applied to the grief process.”
“Recognizing the grief that is there helps people move through it in a way that yields more healing than steeping in anger or anxiety.” – Claire Bidwell-Smith
What Bidwell-Smith has learned as she helps others is that the stages don’t work as neatly as we expect. “Even Elisabeth herself wrote…that they weren’t meant to necessarily be these strict, linear guideposts,” says Bidwell-Smith. And yet so many of us use her five stages as a grief checklist. Bidwell-Smith gets it. “It sounds really appealing to think, okay, I just have these five stages I need to get through…when I get to the other side, I’m going to feel so much better than I do now.”
When that doesn’t work—and, says Bidwell-Smith, it often doesn’t—people come to her. She sees her role as disabusing her clients, and the rest of us, of such rigid expectations, so we can begin to recognize grief in emotions where we might not expect it, such as anger or irritability or anxiety. “[I] give people permission to grieve and educate them on all the different ways we can grieve,” she says. “Recognizing the grief that is there helps people move through it in a way that yields more healing than steeping in anger or anxiety.” And it’s not just death that leaves us grieving. Bidwell-Smith has had clients dealing with health issues, or divorce, or moving. They need permission to grieve too, she says.
COVID and Collective Loss
This past year has brought us all nearer to grief. Whether we’ve experienced the loss of someone close to us or have read the mounting numbers of COVID deaths with horror or have mourned the absence of so many moments we’d taken for granted, not one of us has avoided grief even if we have yet to acknowledge it.
It’s a complicated grief, says Bidwell-Smith. Some of her clients still ache with their own loss; at the same time, they watch others celebrate the reopening of events and activities. This pandemic has offered us a master class in understanding the ways we’re affected by loss and has handed us the opportunity to speak openly about grief, to express the anxiety it’s often wrapped in, and to broaden our recognition of trauma. But only if we’re willing to have that reckoning. As we navigate our way out of the pandemic, Bidwell-Smith cautions against resisting grief, against moving too quickly toward our previous normal. “We need to be able to talk about it, we need to share our stories of loss, and we need to have someone bear witness to what we’re experiencing,” she says.
This pandemic has offered us a master class in understanding the ways we’re affected by loss and has handed us the opportunity to speak openly about grief.
Bidwell-Smith senses a positive shift in our cultural willingness to examine what we’ve all been through. And that, again, is something she credits to Kübler-Ross: “She gave us the language to be able to speak about [grief].” But there’s more work to be done. On Bidwell-Smith’s wishlist is death ed classes, she says, “like sex ed.” Specifically, she’d like medical professionals and those working in education to be better versed in the language of loss and end of life to better deal with what comes up for those grieving, “emotionally, physically and logistically,” she says. Until then, however, we have Kübler-Ross’s DABDA. We have C.S. Lewis reminding us that grief can feel like fear, Bidwell-Smith building on the DABDA framework and adding in anxiety.
It shouldn’t surprise any of us who’ve survived this pandemic to note that grief cloaks itself in anxiety, that grief can feel like fear. Or, as writer Joan Didion put it, “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”
What Bidwell-Smith wants us to know is that we can move through that grief and emerge somewhere on the other side, feeling safe again. It won’t be neat and it won’t be easy. But it also won’t be wrong.