Fear & Grief
Fear. It has been with us forever. It is one of the basic and natural emotions that we have. Fear alerts us to danger. Fear informs us that we are exposed and have been laid bare. Fear wells up in our brain, sends signals to our body to tense up, and be ready to fight or flee. Fear is the voice of vulnerability.
Fear is one of the basic emotions that many of us experience as we grieve. As C.S. Lewis wrote about his own grief, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” Fear comes with these body-based indicators. It involves our body as well as our mind; and sometimes it is our body’s expressions that clue us in to what we are feeling.
There are a couple of doorways into that sense of fear and vulnerability. First is fear rooted in the unconscious awareness of our own death. Another’s death confronts us with that. It is a part of what we grapple with as we grieve. Mortality is a very uncomfortable truth, and the awareness of it triggers this fear of being human. Mortality is real and we do much to control it and keep it under wraps.
Second is the death of the person we grieve leaves us with an open-ended future. We are not quite sure now what the future holds and how we will navigate it. We unconsciously expected that person to always be there, providing their natural presence in the landscape of our life. But their death changes that landscape. The “mountains, the long winding roads crossing forests and villages” don’t look the same; we are left feeling a bit lost, not like ourselves.
The fear of the river, of “an ocean so vast, that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever” is real and breathtaking. And it is compelling.
The truth before us is that we must take the risk of entering. It draws us forward. We must try, day by day, to test out this new identity we are presented with. Little by little we become a part of the new landscape, transforming into a new person with new abilities, new roles we must fulfill, and new actions and skills that we have learned to develop. Along with this transformation is a lessening of the natural fear of our mortality. We grow deeper into the meaning and purpose of life, and our capacities to live it fully and more deeply. These grow together, intertwined and strengthening us for the rest of our life journey. The fear has helped to transform us, and we have discovered more of the ocean that is life.
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other way.
The river can not go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.