The Transformation of Anxiety in the Shadow of Loss

The Transformation of Anxiety in the Shadow of Loss
Photo by Sergey N / Unsplash

My hands lifted towards my face, clenching the decorative porcelain tea cup. After a slow, intentional sip, I pushed the cup into my cheeks and allowed the cup’s warmth to nourish my panicked nervous system. It was an hour past the time Ariana was supposed to be home. It was dark. It was getting late.

Each minute she was not home and safe was a lifetime’s worth of rumination and irrational thoughts. She’s dead. She must be dead. The car broke down, and she is stranded. Fuck, she must be dead. Come on, CJ, that’s unbelievable. Stop. She’s okay. But also, she could be dead.

Another sip of tea and another moment of hopeful thinking that, by some miracle, would calm my body and mind.

It did not.

I fell backward against the kitchen wall and let my back slowly slide down until I was sitting. I rested my arms on my legs, tea cup still in hand, and let my head drop. Each breath grew more shallow, making it harder to breathe. I felt the wet fall from my eyes down my cheek and watched it drop to the floor.

I stayed like this until I saw the headlights shine through the windows. The tears of pain turned to tears of relief.

Similar scenes unfolded over the years until my 30th birthday, when my fears were no longer unfounded, and Ariana was told she was going to die from incurable cancer.

For the majority of my life, I’ve fought anxiety and, at various times, severe depression. A battle raged for my mind, body, and spirit. I spent my twenties doing internal work, learning to use different tools and techniques as weapons for managing my mental health.

Then, I kicked off my thirties, knowing I was going to lose my wife, mother of my children, and best friend. My anxiety and fears began to mutate into something much more insidious and powerful as I stood by her side, watching her slowly die.

After Ariana’s diagnosis, we lived counting down the days we had left, not only waiting for her to die but, more damaging, waiting until her health span had run its course. The almost six years she lived with cancer were filled with despair, fear, panic, and pain. Each morning I woke up, I knew we were one day closer to losing each other. Every day was filled with angst about worrying whether a new side effect would grip her body and alter our new normal, forcing us to redefine our relationship. Every three months, we would wait by the phone to hear the results of her scans, and most of the time, it was tragic news.

“The cancer has spread.”
“The medicine is no longer working.”
“We need to do another scan. We saw something odd.”

My job now mattered more than ever. I would read into every word my manager said to me, worrying that I would lose my job and no longer be able to provide the health insurance or money needed to care for Ariana. Every day, I would sit down at my desk and nervously waste hours trying to manage the pressure to succeed at a high-pressure job because Ariana’s life literally depended on it.

It was, and I’m not being hyperbolic, a constant state of emotional, physical, and financial insecurity.

The uncertainty was at a constant peak. Stuck at the top of the curve with no hope that things would change. The only constant in our lives was that Ariana’s was hanging in the balance, and I could do nothing to stop it.

Every moment was to be cherished because I didn’t know when it would be our last. Every experience, purchase, dinner, laugh, cry, or smile made my stomach turn inside out, knowing it was all ending.

All things were threats and inspired a deep fear in my heart.

I began taking on her pain and anxiety, which exacerbated mine. Ariana became my focus. I ignored as many of my needs as possible. Her needs and desires were the only things I lived for. Whether it was right or wrong, it was what I felt I had to do. She was dying with certainty. So I wanted to give her everything she needed and wanted to live the best possible life before she had no more life to live.

The pressure began to build internally the more I ignored my needs and attempted to hold them quietly within my body. A few times, it nearly broke me as the emotions and stress grew too high, and I began ruminating on death as an option. I - irrationally - thought if I were gone, Ariana might be forced to survive, and the kids could live a better life with her instead of me.

I drowned myself in books, articles, podcasts, and other resources I found, trying to find anything that would give me more time with Ariana. The more I learned, the more my anxiety grew. Eventually, I would conclude that everything causes cancer. I began restricting my own life and trying to “live perfectly” to avoid cancer and death. I was not only dying by proxy of Ariana, but I was beginning to lay the foundations for my fear that I, too, was dying.

The grooves in my mind grew, and the closer Ariana got to death, the faster and deeper they formed.

The reality is that the world has never been a safe place for me. Since childhood, I have felt unsafe no matter where my feet took me. I even felt unsafe in my own body. The only reprieve I had was being in Ariana’s presence. She could take me out of my head and into the present moment.

The moment she died, all vestige of escape from my broken reality was gone.

So, my sense of feeling unsafe intensified.
The world wasn’t safe.
My kids weren’t safe.
My body wasn’t safe.
I wasn’t safe.

All areas of my life became unexplored places of uncertainty, with doubt, fear, and death lurking around the corner. I was living in hell and had to navigate this terrifying existence while being a solo parent to three grieving children.

My fears had a bite and tenacity to them. Ariana’s death was proof to my fears that they were real, and before I could even question them, six months after she died, my child was diagnosed with a rare nerve tumor. I found myself back in hospitals and doctors’ offices, hearing “cancer” aimed again toward someone I loved.

The months following had forced me into an ongoing state of panic. I don’t mean I was sorta scared and had some anxiety. I mean, it was an all-out, “I can’t take more than a short, shallow breath because it feels like the hand of a giant is pressing in on me, and my feet feel like they have 300lb weights attached to them.”

I could not sleep. I could not function.

Finally, after a complicated surgery, biopsy, and follow-up MRI, he was declared cancer-free with no new benign tumor growth.

I never stopped being a caretaker, even after Ariana died. I was never able to take a pause and grieve everything I had lost. My days were spent caring for the house, kids, and myself and working until late hours and early mornings managing a team of engineers, where I took their well-being seriously as a part of my job. All while managing the kids’ grief and my own and dealing with an identity crisis of figuring out who I was in this life that I was so violently thrown into.

And in the midst of it all, I pushed myself beyond my limits to heal and grow. I was determined to do grief differently. Fuck everyone else, I’m going to be the “perfect” griever and “heal” faster than anyone ever has. But, if you have ever done deep healing, you know how terrifying, exhausting, and painful it is.

My wounds were still pouring out blood as I walked into the therapist’s office and forced myself into the depths of hell to face my pain head-on. I began exploring everything available to heal, from having three therapists to acupuncture, Biofield therapy, chiropractic work, massage therapy, physical therapy, sensory deprivation, diet, supplements, meditation, and other things I can’t even remember.

And progress was made, yet I still found myself in a consistent fight-or-flight state. It’s been so long that it all feels pretty standard to me.


It’s become a way of life. It moves and shifts around my body and mind but is always present. Recently, I have asked myself two things:

“What has my anxiety become in grief, and could it be possible to live without it?”

I want to be free from this pain. The shame I carry from the rumination and irrational thoughts that I have daily weighs me down and hurts the relationships with those that I love the most. It is exhausting waking up to a battle with yourself every day.

Now, having realized how much the grief has amplified my anxieties means I need to adopt a new mindset to what I’ve had in the years past. I need to shift my approach. First, forgiving myself for having these struggles, and second, calibrating to an acceptable baseline level of anxiety.

Forgiving myself might be the biggest challenge I’ve had yet. Calibrating my baseline level of anxiety, the second biggest. It is possible that to do it, it might be time to look into medication to help normalize my brain chemistry. For me, though, it’s not so simple to take a pill.

Part of my anxiety in grief is a crippling health anxiety. The same fear that makes me convinced that taking things as common as Ibuprofen or even a vitamin will cause me serious health problems or, worse, death. So, entertaining some variant of medication to manage my anxiety is a giant mountain to climb. I still have the bottle of ADHD medication, unopened, sitting in my cabinet because I have been too scared to take it.

I feel stranded in the middle of a forest, alone and wounded. I see the path to freedom but can’t get up and walk out.

The years I have spent learning about my traumas, struggles, and recent grief have continuously yielded new revelations and avenues to dig into. The changing shape of my anxiety in grief is the latest of them, and with each new revelation is a renewed resolve to chase it down to the core of the trauma.

But It’s hard to know sometimes if I’m chasing healing or perfection.

I fail to accept myself in my struggles. I often get angry at my reflection. I want to scream at him, “Wake the fuck up and get over it. Heal. Be free. Stop struggling. Stop hurting people cause you are too broken. Start living your life.”

I look in the mirror and see such a damaged man looking back at me. If I stare long enough, I see a child, scared and alone, tears falling from his eyes, begging me to love him.

So, I have a choice: love him or keep punishing him for not being better. He has spent decades desperately seeking somewhere safe, and I hope that somewhere safe will eventually be with me.