Q&A: Is it normal to worry about someone I love dying?

Kate BucklandBlog

Question: Is it normal to worry about someone I love dying?

Answer: Yes, however if you are worrying so much that it is negatively impacting your life, then we would encourage you to reach out for help to deal with this anxiety which, for some people, becomes a genuine phobia. Read on for more information.

Wondering whether it is normal to worry about someone you love dying is a topic that comes up often. It’s the type of worry that no-one is immune to, yet so many of us hide our fears, concerned that it might not be normal to feel the fear and anxiety around loss that we do. It’s also common to fear death in general, and to fear your own death and leaving behind those you love. Sometimes, this fear can become a serious and debilitating phobia – Thanatophobia.

In this article, our focus is on fearing the death of a loved one. This kind of anxiety falls into two different categories, and they both require very different approaches so let’s start by identifying the two.

According to psychology today, this kind of fear either focusses on worry when a loved one is at a higher than usual risk of death, for example, if they have been diagnosed with cancer or a terminal illness.

However, you can also feel fear and anxiety about a loved one dying, even though they are not at any particular risk for dying. Despite that, you might not be able to stop worrying about it.

Let’s discuss the first scenario around death-based anxiety first.

 Psychologist, Jade Wu, points out that knowing death is inevitable and actually accepting it are two very different things, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. If you’re facing a situation where someone you love is dying, it’s important to allow yourself to feel the full range of grief. It’s when it becomes paralyzing that it is a problem and you should consider seeking support. Signs of this include an inability to enjoy the time you have with them now because you’re so focused on their death and being unable to manage basic day to day life and self-care.

To help, Dr Wu suggests “climbing down the what if tree”.

“The what-if tree has a sturdy trunk with strong roots at the bottom—that’s the present moment,” she writes. “It’s safe there; you feel grounded. As you climb the what-if tree, with each branching what-if scenario the branches get thinner and your footing gets shakier. This place poses more of a risk. At some point, it’s not useful to think that far ahead.”

That doesn’t mean putting off important topics like decisions around medical and end of life care, however, setting aside time to address your to do list rather than allowing it to become all-encompassing can be helpful.

It’s also important not to avoid having conversations about death. Over the past year, we’ve published several blog posts around how to discuss death and these can offer you some insight into having those awkward conversations.

You don’t have to have a loved one with a terminal diagnosis in order to fear their death. When you experience anxiety about death of a loved one who is not currently at a higher risk of death, Dr Wu says it’s important to find ways to bring yourself back into the present.

Dr Wu says that having experienced an unexpected loss in the past, or feeling stressed or vulnerable can all lead to fearing the death of someone you love. However, this kind of fear can also be a symptom of a generalized anxiety disorder, so if it is impacting on your day to day life, she recommends you seek the guidance of a trained professional.

“Understand that there is a scientific reason for why your brain comes up with constant worries,” Dr Wu says. “You’re getting an illusion of control, which keeps you searching for more. Stay grounded by reminding yourself not to indulge in the act of worrying.”

“Understand that thoughts are just stories your brain tells you. Now that you know why your brain comes up with persistent worries, you can start to let them go. The key is to realize that thoughts are just stories.”

According to Dr Wu, a good strategy for dealing with this is to tell yourself you are something you are not, then look in the mirror. In her article, which you can read here, she uses the example of telling yourself you are a blue giraffe. Consider whether the thought makes it true, meaningful or useful.

She writes: “Now, think of the stories your brain tells you, like, “She’s never late, so she must’ve gotten in an accident.” It’s okay if these thoughts pop into your head sometimes—you can’t control that. It’s okay to sit with them to see if they’re meaningful. But consider whether you’re reading too much into them. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts based on the facts I have right now … or are they just thoughts?”

And above all, remember to always be kind to yourself. It’s normal to worry, but if it is controlling your life, reach out for help to address your anxieties.