Understanding and Coping with Grief Attacks

Strategies for understanding and coping with grief panic attacks after a loss

Grief can surface and resurface in unexpected ways. You can be feeling relatively fine and then a little sign can trigger a memory that causes an extreme sense of panic and anxiety. These situations are called “grief attacks.” If you’re struggling with unmanageable grief attacks during bereavement, this guide can help you understand what grief panic attacks are and how to cope with them.

What are grief attacks?

Dr. Robert Neimeyer, clinical psychologist and professor of Psychology at the University of Memphis, characterizes grief attacks as reminders that you’re trying to integrate the reality of the death of a loved one into the ongoing story of your life.
 
Grief attacks can range in type and severity, Neimeyer says, from very profound and unsettling, like a night terror, to a small wave of nostalgia that is tinged with sadness. Whether they’re minor or severe, grief attacks are often filled with anxiety. While anxiety is not one of the stages of grief, Neimeyer says the entire bereavement process can be connected with anxiety because you’re realizing that someone who has anchored your sense of self is no longer there.
 
“Grief is all about attachment, that is, our loving bonds or significant bonds, even if they’re of mixed quality, positive and negative, they’re all about the rupture of these bonds that tie us to significant other people,” Neimeyer said. “We experience profound separation distress, separation anxiety, in the aftermath of loss, especially when someone has been a kind of secure base for us in our lives, providing a kind of care and connection that really anchors our sense of who we are. Then that person’s absence is profoundly unsettling, and trying to rewrite the story of our life without them is a very profound challenge.”

Complicated Grief: How to Cope with Death

While grief-related anxiety attacks can happen with any loss, Neimeyer says they’re more likely to occur “more vividly or intrusively” following an unnatural death. A violent death, a sudden loss, the death of a child, or other forms of tragic loss may be excluded from your consciousness for a while, Neimeyer says, but then they bubble up when your defenses are down.

Neimeyer emphasizes that grief anxiety attacks are a normal part of coping with grief, even if they occur for years after the loss. Fortunately, they typically decrease in severity and frequency with time.

What triggers grief attacks?

Grief attacks are often triggered by events that remind you of your loved one, such as birthdays, holidays, or anniversaries. But they can also be triggered by sounds, smells, or feelings, like “associations that arise in conversations, overhearing their favorite song on the radio, or smelling their perfume,” Neimeyer says.

Grief Support is Available in More Ways than Ever

How do you cope with grief attacks?

According to Neimeyer, the best strategies for coping with grief attacks are those that allow you to achieve a sense of control over your emotions. Grief panic attacks can be an integral part of coming to terms with a loss, so it’s important not to hide from them or push them away. Instead, Neimeyer suggests trying to control the way grief attacks occur, such as allotting time into your schedule to sit with your grief. That way, you can prevent grief attacks from blindsiding you at inconvenient or distressing times. He also suggests:

Grief journaling

Take a few minutes to write thoughts about your loss at a time of day that feels right for you. Neimeyer suggests listening to reflective music beforehand to safely prepare for writing about death and then unwinding after a writing session with an activity you enjoy, like going for a run or chatting with friends.

Grief meditation

Meditation can be a way to quiet your mind and improve your outlook, but it can also be a way to sit with your thoughts and emotions and come to terms with them over time. Neimeyer suggests trying forms of gratitude meditation that lead you to reflect on what you have in your life.

Have an internal dialogue with your loved one

Speaking to the person you’re missing or “consulting them in spirit” may bring you some solace, Neimeyer says. Try telling them how you’re feeling or any thoughts you wish you could’ve said before they passed. It’s okay to talk it out — in your head or out loud.

13 Signs You Should Seek Grief Counseling

When to seek help

If you’re avoiding social interactions, abusing substances, having suicidal thoughts, or struggling to live your life normally after a loss, the next step may be to seek professional grief support in the form of psychotherapy. While Neimeyer says grief counseling is a productive way to cope with bereavement, he emphasizes that medications, like anti-depressants, have been scientifically proven ineffective in treating grief itself. While grief is often accompanied by depression, the process itself is not a form of depression, so it shouldn’t be treated as such.
 
This article may contain links to third party websites, but Great Western Insurance Company is neither responsible nor liable for their content, accuracy, or security. Review our Terms and Conditions to learn more.

Photo credit: iStock


Free My Careletter Program Helps Families Cope with Loss

Great Western Insurance Company created the My Careletter® program to help families cope with bereavement. It features 12 free, monthly newsletters about grief support that are sent following a loved one's funeral. Sign up to receive the newsletters in the mail or through email.


Sign Up for Free

Find Grief Support

Search for grief support resources, such as in-person groups, online forums, and phone hotlines, available in your area.

Submit

Related Articles

Preplanning after a Loss: How Do You Want to be Remembered?

After losing a loved one, it's natural to start wondering, 'How do I want to be remembered?' Preplanning can help you record your answers.

Read More

How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving

Learn the right things to say — and what not to say — when helping a grieving loved one cope with loss.

Read More

How to Avoid Senior Isolation after Losing a Loved One

It’s important to find grief support and connect with others after a life partner passes. A lack of interest in social activities is normal following loss, but ongoing senior isolation can be dangerous.

Read More

What You Need to Know About Bereavement Leave

When a loved one dies, you need time — to grieve and to begin the healing process. That’s why it’s necessary to understand what, if any, bereavement leave your employer offers. This list of bereavement leave questions and answers will get you started.

Learn More

Understanding Bereavement Guilt

As you’re working through the stages of grief, it’s common to stir up bereavement guilt. To help you avoid being stuck in that phase for too long, we’ll help you understand what you’re feeling and how to cope.

Read More

How to Avoid Bereavement Scams after a Loved One Dies

Many families face bereavement scams after the loss of a loved one. But if you know what to look for, you can avoid being scammed and focus on finding grief support.

Read More