Monday, August 14, 2023

Coping with Anxiety and Panic Attacks in Grief

He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.  ~ Michel de Montaigne

A reader writes: I' m trying to deal with accepting the death of my father 6 months ago. I'm having panic attacks and I'm scared that they may start to develop into other fears.

I watched my father take his last breath and was there everyday as he slowly got worse. I want to remember him and not be afraid to think of him as it may provoke another attack.

My dad had his first stroke just before he was going to retire,which left him with little use of the right side and affected his speech. Four years later he had his second stroke this time leaving him 90% disabled and without being able to talk. He refused theropy and became very stubbon and just gave-up. He had been very active and loved the outdoors. He was a gardener for a huge swimming pool and recoration centre. Everyone loved him, they said that he was their backbone, also helped with the maintance and never complained. I think because he knew he could not even cut the grass in his own back yard he thought he had failed himself. He became inpatient and very angry. I saw him on a Saturday and spent the day at my parents' home with my children which he loved, then said goodbye to go home. That Monday morning I got a phone call from my Mum to say they had to call an ambulance to take Dad to the hospital. She wasn't sure what was wrong at that stage, but he just wasn't himself. I then received a phone call from the doctor at the hospital saying they think he may have had a heartattack and was seriosly sick.I always had a thought that this day would come because I knew that after his second stroke anything could happen. 

I thought I would be OK but I just broke down.A few hours later they hooked him up to all the machines to try and control the sugar and salts in his blood and we were able to see him. He knew he was very sick and slowly everything started to fail and cease. Doctors gave him no hope and removed the machines. He moved in and out of consciousness, but when he was awake he was aware that my mother and my aunt and I were there. I think he liked that. We talked to him and said for him to leave as it was his time. We all are faithful and believe, and a local priest came to pray upon him. Three days he lay there and so did we. Every breath he took I thought would be his last. It scared me to be there and experince all of it, but I had to. I would think that he was waiting for the right time. Maybe he did not want to do it front of me so I would make an excuse to leave. We would stay there day and night, and on the third day around 2 AM, we decided to go home to take a shower, eat something, rest and then come back in the morning. When we returned a nurse was going to give him a wash down and I was going to take a sip of my juice. As he took his last breath we all jumped to be by his side, held his hand and told him to go be free. It seemed to take a life time of suffering at that time but now it feels like it went by so quickly.

I guess sharing all of this with you will help as I hardly talk about it. I'm thinking of seeing a counselor or joining a support group. I think I need to cry alot more. I can look at pictures of my dad without falling apart. I have even started to write letters to him. I know my dad would like me to be happy and I'm going to do every thing I can to help myself because I want to think of my dad with happy memories instead of being scared to get another panic attack.  I have to look after his grandchildren and do everything he's done for me to them. He was a great father, he gave me everything. He worked for me and my brother to provide us a good furture. Love you heaps, Dad!

When we buried my father he was placed in a holding crypt at a mausoleum while the new mausoleum is being built right next to the existing one, which will be ready in a few months. Anyway I organized the license to exhume him and then to place him in the new mausoleum crypt. My question to you is this: Should I be present while they are doing this? I will be seeing the coffin all over again and not sure if this will be doing more harm than good. At the moment I'm for going but I'm afraid I may regret it later. May I have your advice please?

My response: I can understand your concerns about “seeing [your father’s] coffin all over again” and your wondering if “this will be doing more harm than good” ~ and I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do in this situation ~ but I’d like to share some information with you (and others reading this) that might help you make some sense out of where you are, and what you may be feeling, at this point in your grief process.

From what you describe, it is evident that you are consciously and deliberately moving forward in your struggle to accept the reality of your father’s death. You’ve shared the story of his illness and his last days; you’ve started talking to your dad and writing letters to him; you’re able to look at his photograph now when you couldn’t bring yourself to do so before; you’re considering going for counseling or joining a grief support group ~ these are all very concrete and positive steps forward, and I want to recognize and honor you for taking them.

As for whether to be present when your father’s coffin is moved, consider this: What’s the worst thing that could happen ~ that you would cry or “fall apart?” Play it out in your mind, or talk it over with a trusted friend or relative ~ then take steps to plan for any and all possibilities. If you decide to be present, maybe you could build into the event an escape for yourself. Perhaps you could arrange to have a relative or friend go with you and be available to take over for you, if you found that you had to leave. Think about having someone else to drive you there and back so you don’t have to worry about getting home safely if you’re too upset to drive. 

The point is this: if the very thought of doing this produces overwhelming anxiety, then how can you break it down into manageable pieces that you will be able to tolerate? Sometimes we think we’re not “doing grief” properly if there are parts of it that we prefer to avoid ~ but YOU know yourself better than anyone, and YOU are in control of how much you are willing and able to manage in any given situation. Dose yourself ~ take your grief in smaller doses according to your ability to tolerate it. Grief is very hard work, but you don't have to do it all at once, and you don't have to let it manage you. You can learn to manage your grief in your own way, on your own time frame. And always keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to do this – there is only YOUR way, and you must discover that for yourself.

Afterword: Thank you for replying. For months I put aside my feelings and continued somewhat a normal life not accepting the death of my father until I started having the panic attacks. Your discussion group helped me alot. Over time I provoked the feelings to let the greiving out and now feel much better. Still something inside me still feels numb but I will cope with that as long as I can control the attacks.Talking, writting letters to my dad and crying helps.

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