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When my father died in 2011, my whole world was flipped on its head. I have spent most of my 20s coming to terms with death, loss, and grief, and this is also evidenced in the types of books I have read throughout this time. This can be seen in my reviews of fiction works as well as nonfiction works.
My father died a few days before Christmas when I was 24, and suddenly everything had changed. I began to worry that other people around me would get sick and die. That my father’s cancer would spread to the bodies of the people I loved; that it could spread to my body. I imagined myself dying of my father’s disease, and the pain it would cause the people around me. I was angry at the world for taking him from me. I found comfort in nothing. My father, my friend, was gone and there was nothing anyone could do or say that would make it okay. I had to find a way to get on with things.
I worried more than I do today, but I still worry about his death. I wonder if he was in pain (nurses and doctors have assured me this is not the case); if he felt loved and helped in his last days; if me being with him at the end was enough for him; did I protect him from as much hurt as I could; was I enough for him? These thoughts would swim in my head and I had no way to even articulate half of them. I had no way to define what I was feeling, and I feared above all else, that what I was feeling was completely abnormal.
I wasn’t able to sleep. I had nightmare after nightmare of my father’s death— me sitting in the room with him as he takes his last breath. Over and over and over on repeat, these moments would repeat like some sick torture program. I could only find comfort in sleeping whilst holding a small angel figure that my father had given me. I wore it for months after he died.
As time went on, I was able to process my grief slowly. It felt like I was coming out of a coma: I could suddenly see things a bit more clearly and recognise the world around me again. Although, to say that one day I woke up and everything was totally fine and back to normal would be a total lie.
Grief is not something to get over, and it is something you have to learn to carry with you. It will intrinsically change who you are, and learning to know that that is okay can be daunting and comforting.
I wanted to preface this book review with my own experiences of grief because I don’t want grief to be a taboo. I want people to openly talk about loss and love, and everything that comes with losing someone close to you. Chances are that you are reading this review because you have also experienced loss, so I want to let you know you are not alone.
Claire Bidwell-Smith’s book Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief intrigued me. I had never heard anyone talk about anxiety in relation to grief before, and I was not sure how anxiety and grief went together. Although, after reading Bidwell-Smith’s books, I realised a lot of the feelings I had after my father’s death could be described as anxiety. Bidwell-Smith says that “worry is the mind’s expression of anxiety.” Continuous thoughts about the loss, sleeplessness, constant worry and concern for other’s health and safety, and my mind not letting go of my father’s death where all signs of anxiety. When I started to read Bidwell-Smith’s book, I thought I didn’t have problems with anxiety. Anxiety is panic attacks and obsessive worrying and overthinking until you hyperventilate. And while I didn’t have extreme forms of anxiety or anxiety that lasted for years, it was something I experienced with my grief.
What are grief and anxiety when they come together? Anxiety grief, which is anxiety brought on by the loss of a loved one, has slightly different defining features than ‘normal’ anxiety. As Bidwell-Smith defines it, you might have a pre-occupation with the death, guilt surrounding the death, and regrets. You might feel extreme anger and have more bouts of anger than you normally would. You might have a constant worry about your health and the health of others around you (usually linked with how the loved-one died). These are just some of the ways that anxiety grief looks different to ‘normal’ grief. The subject matter changes how it manifests, and the obsessions and worries stem from the loss. Depending on the death, whether it is sudden or drawn out over time will also change the way you feel. Sudden deaths might leave you with more regrets, for example.
Grief, and therefore, anxiety relating to grief, are dealt with privately. People rarely reach out to others. Most people do not want to talk about death or loss, and many people deep in grief and loss do not always seek help. Often people are in denial about their loss.
Bidwell-Smith offers excellent advice about how to find people to talk to about grief from seeing grief therapists, finding a grief support group, journalling and writing, and exploring your own spirituality. Bidwell-Smith encourages people not to let grief control their lives or the memories of their lost loved ones. Reclaim your loss, celebrate the relationship you had with the person, remember them, and reconnect with them in your own way. Owning your grief means it does not control you.
Complex grief, grief that goes on for an extended period of time as it is roughly defined, implies that all grief is complex. Something that Bidwell-Smith herself insists on throughout her book which is something I also wholly agree with: grief is never simple. Grief has no timeline and it can subside and manifest again in the strangest ways. This is something I can attest to, and I am sure many others can as well. And Bidwell-Smith suggests this is entirely normal. The idea that grief has five stages and ends with acceptance was first coined for patients with terminal illnesses who would experience an ‘end’. If you want my unsolicited advice, get comfortable with your grief, it isn’t going anywhere.
Bidwell-Smith offers many tools to help with your loss, whether your loss is recent or years in the past. Writing has been one of the most amazing things for my grief. I have written about my personal loss here on this blog, I have journaled through my loss, and I have also often spoken to my Dad in my head when I needed to get things off my chest. You don’t need to be an amazing writer, and your goal is not a necessarily a publication, rather you should be looking to find ways to externalise your grief process in constructive ways.
Another way that has helped me has been embracing death. Learning about dying and the human body, different religious rituals around death, reading memoirs and books written by people who have experienced loss, and learning about how cancer manifests in the body have all helped me along with my ‘journey’ (I hate that word, but I feel like it is the only one that fits).
Bidwell-Smith’s book is a useful tool for anyone experiencing loss. Your anxiety doesn’t have to be full-blown panic attacks where you feel dizzy and nauseous before you do something about it. If there is one thing this book will teach you, it is that what you are experiencing is completely normal. And in knowing you are not alone, you already feel like you have a community of people behind you.
What self-help books are you reading this summer? As always, share the reading love.