Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Grief and Fear

Maybe grief doesn’t just feel like fear, maybe it is fear.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” says C.S. Lewis in the opening line of A Grief Observed.

Maybe grief doesn’t just feel like fear, maybe it is fear.

Okay maybe not wholly. Grief does, of course, contain great loss - loss of someone or something or both that was tangible and real. That was important and precious and beloved. So there is a true sadness that comes with loss. A sad so real your body aches and you want to get outside of your own skin. A sad that makes you tear and shake things. And makes you lie down and cry.

But I’m beginning to understand that grief is not just loss. Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once - a way to orient our life. Our love.

This untethering is not only disorienting, it can be terrifying. “I’m not afraid,” CS Lewis goes on to say, just have “the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.” Not afraid, he says, yet he’s having trouble breathing, sitting still. Feels it in the pit of his stomach. Sounds like a perfect description of fear to me.

And why shouldn’t he be afraid? He has just lost his wife. She was central to his world, his heart. She was home. He was her husband. Now she exists no more and he is not that person. So who is he and where the hell is home?

I would offer the idea that not having the answer to those two questions is pretty frightening. And with loss, life offers you no chance to answer it the same way you did before. Even if you’ve spent your whole life answering it the same way, loss and the subsequent grief force you to find a different answer.

And the fear is not just about the untethering - about not having the answer. It’s because the answer to those questions isn’t knowable in minute. Or day. Or month. Or sometimes even a year. And so while we figure it out we have to live in a world without orientation. Without knowing who we are or where we’re going or where we live. There are no coordinates to plug into our GPS. We can only put one foot in front of the other, each day. Breathe. We can’t run but we can’t stand still either. We have to keep walking forward, holding fear’s hand. Until we arrive somewhere new.

More from Samantha Stein Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today