Anxiety and Fear in Grief: When Your Mind is Not Your Friend

In the past year, I’ve lost two women in my family from cancer. I’ve felt the searing loss and pain that these deaths have brought, in part because I am in remission from cancer myself. Twice. Seventeen years apart.

Because of that, I know a lot about how my mind works with anxiety and fear. I’ve learned to recognize different voices inside my mind; some voices that contribute to freedom and happiness and some that bind me up in a prison of my own making.

Last year, just before my beloved cousin/sister/daughter/friend Jenny died, I recognized that I would need help to prepare for Jenny’s death. She and I had walked her cancer journey together and I was in a bad way. Also Jenny was eleven years younger than me and I struggled with anger and feelings of injustice about life and death. I know many of you are not strangers to that experience.

I sought help with a grief counselor named Lyn Prashant at Integrative Grief Therapy.

Lyn began our session in a particular way. She challenged me to listen exclusively to the needs of my grieving body, and not what my mind thought I should be feeling. She said: “The body doesn’t know how to lie.” Your body will give you more accurate feedback about what you need to heal and move forward.

And then she told me a story to illustrate what she meant.

Lyn’s story was recounted to her several years ago by author and teacher, Ondrea Levine. Stephen and Ondrea Levine are internationally known teachers of conscious living and dying.

Here is the Scene: A sunny day in beautiful northern California.

Ondrea is walking along the street window shopping while waiting to meet up with Stephen in a half hour for some dinner together.

Ondrea’s inner voice #1: I want an ice-cream cone.

Inner voice #2: No, it’s only a half hour to dinner, can’t you wait?

Inner voice #1: Well, sure, but it’s warm out—a lovely day—an ice-cream cone would hit the spot.

Inner voice #2: You’ll spoil your dinner.

Inner voice#1: Who cares, I want an ice-cream cone, I really do.

Ondrea thoroughly enjoys her ice-cream cone.

Now this is key. A new voice speaks up inside Ondrea’s head, a know-it-all voice. It says quite clearly: “I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.”

Can you picture it? You’ve just enjoyed your ice cream and some little piece-of-work in your head says: I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.”

As Lyn recounted it, it was an ah-ha moment for Ondrea. This is the kind of junk the mind throws at you—just because it can. Because it wants to be right. Because it loves soapboxes and giving lectures. Because—if exposed—it will fight an even more ridiculous fight, a broken record of justifications, repeating its stories over and over again. This is when Ondrea realized that the mind was not her friend. Was the mind a magnificent tool, capable of learning foreign languages, physics, getting a Ph.D. or doing your taxes? Of course! But a friend? No. Lying comes very naturally to the mind because of ego.

When I heard this story it was an ah-ha moment for me too. As someone who has facilitated writing workshops, I recalled the tools we often use when we write—that of naming the voice inside us that is constantly critical and self-sabotaging. Sometimes we call that voice “The Critic.”

But in this case, while enveloped in fear and anxiety about cancer, I decided to give this inner voice a particularly strong name, so there would be no question as to her identity. I named her The Anxiety Hag. During my cancer treatments in 2008, I kept a journal everyday and on one especially bad day, I found a sentence I had written:

Anxiety is a hag who will jump on any synapse that will have her.

It helps me to remember exactly what I’m dealing with when I hear that tone in my head. It helps me to remember that the anxiety hag is not clever and smart (although she is sure she is.) Rather, she is joy-killing, shame-making and fear mongering. I remember that the marvelous mind I have been given is—nonetheless—a delivery system for her; a constantly moving ticker tape at the bottom of my mind screen. I remember that I don’t have to do anything about this, because it is impossible to stop anyway. Shining a light on the process is enough.

Postscript: A few months ago, my oncologist suggested that I go through some genetic testing because of the familial connection with female cancers. I went ahead and ordered all the material and when it arrived—all twenty-five pages of it—I began to fill out the detailed questionnaire. After completing a few pages, I stopped. What exactly is this going to do for me, I asked myself? I don’t have children with whom to share these possible risks. I know that this is the way that cancer treatment is going, but the science may not be all there yet. And in the meantime, this will surely increase my anxiety.

So, I tossed the pages in the nearest round can. They landed with a satisfying thump. In that moment, I felt a lightness in my body, a gut-sure reaching for freedom and wholeness and a rejection of fear.

And then guess what? The anxiety hag said: “You really shouldn’t have done that.”

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Susan Troccolo

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Susan Troccolo retired from the business world and is now a community volunteer, gardener, writer, and bluegrass guitar player. She lives with Patrick, her husband of thirty-five years and Fly, the "Grace Kelly of Border Collies" in Portland, Oregon. Susan is the author of "Growing Down Stories", personal essays of living life with humor and grace. She has several essays in the "Chocolate for a Woman's Soul" series (Simon and Schuster), work in VoiceCatcher and the Portland Women's Journal. She loves blogging, especially humor pieces, at Culinate.com (First Person and Our Table) and at Lighthearted Travel.com. Susan is a survivor of cancer, once in 1992 and again in 2008, experiences which have informed her life and her work. In 1998, Susan received training to work with drug-addicted babies in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for two years and also became certified to facilitate creative writing workshops through "Write Around Portland" where she also served as a board member for four years. The Write Around Portland ten-week intensives included workshops for teens who had lost a parent, women with metastatic breast cancer and people in a burn unit. In 2010, Susan was trained to facilitate the "Chronic Disease Self-Management Program" (CDSMP), an evidence-based program developed by Stanford University. In that capacity, she works primarily with people in mid-life and with seniors. The classes assist individuals with the many challenges and ongoing difficult emotions of having a chronic condition, like diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or heart disease. Susan's happiest creative achievement was the creation of a thirty-minute documentary on the life of Anna Lea Lelli, her mentor in the study of Dante's Divine Comedy in the original Italian, while living and studying for four years in Rome. This documentary aired on public television in 1992. Throughout the losses in her life, Susan believes that making grief and loss conscious are as much a birthright as our joys. "Do not fear the darkness, for in it rests the light."

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