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A Talk with Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC

How did you come to determine that anxiety is the “missing stage of grief?”

I’ve been a grief therapist for a decade and over the last ten years of working with hundreds of clients in both hospice and private practice, anxiety has been the predominant symptom afflicting my clients following a significant loss.

I experienced my own plight with anxiety after my mother died when I was eighteen. But it took me a long time to understand that my anxiety was connected to my grief. Because there is very little written about grief-related anxiety, for a long time I just thought there was something wrong with me.

Working in the world of grief I began to see how common this issue is and, after I began to speak and talk about grief-related anxiety, I found my office flooded with clients who were also experiencing it. After that it became easy to study this symptom in-depth and to really learn how to help my clients heal.

What is your advice to someone who has recently experienced a significant loss? 

First and foremost, know that there is no right way to grieve. Your grief is as unique as the relationship you had to that person. Know that grief has a long arc. Current literature and cultural leanings will have you believe that you are allowed a smaller window of time than actually needed. Take your time and know that grief comes in layers and different understandings over time. Let it transform you and break you open—it’s the only way through to the other side.

How can a person tell if the anxiety they’re feeling is due to unresolved grief?

Many people have experienced anxiety prior to the loss, but if you’re experiencing anxiety following a loss for the first time, or if your regular level of anxiety has increased since the loss, then it’s likely that there is a connection within your grief process.

Are certain losses more likely to lead to anxiety than others?

Yes and no. Certainly more traumatic or sudden deaths readily lend themselves to anxiety, but death is death and the stark truth of it, no matter how the death came about, can be startling. Loss unmoors us; it demands we face our mortality and the precariousness of life. Death reminds us that we are not in control and these kinds of reminders can cause unsettling feelings of dread, fear, and anxiety.

You mention that you provide your patients with tools for working through and overcoming their grief-related anxiety. What are some of them?

The most important tools for grappling with anxiety involve cognitive behavioral shifts, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. But there is also a component of needing to process unresolved grief that must be incorporated. When we deny our grief or try to push away the emotions that come with it, anxiety can build.

Have you personally had losses that have led to anxiety?

Yes, both of my parents died of cancer by the time I was 25 years old, and watching them battle their illnesses and eventually die was very difficult for me. I struggled with anxiety for many years after they were gone. The world felt unstable to me, like bad things could happen at any time. I grappled with various phobias, hypochondria, and a general sense of pervasive anxiety. Today I no longer feel afflicted but it has taken conscious work to get over my anxiety due to those losses.

What have you discovered is the greatest obstacle to overcoming grief-related anxiety?

The bottom line is that our culture needs to do a better job of embracing death and supporting the grief process. The obstacles of overcoming grief-related anxiety lie in the fact that people don’t know where to turn when they are going through the experience of loss. They feel alone and overwhelmed and confused about how to handle such big emotions and life changes. If we can continue to grow the conversation about grief and bring awareness to the experience of dying we will all able to support each other and create more healing grief experiences.