Is Anxiety The Sixth Stage Of Grief?

By Beth Leipholtz 10/26/18

One therapist provides compelling examples of the relationship between loss and anxiety. 

grieving young woman

Is anxiety the sixth stage of grief? Therapist and author Claire Bidwell Smith thinks so, and she shares why in a recent column in the Washington Post

Bidwell Smith writes that a few years ago, she began seeing an increased number of patients reporting anxiety after the loss of a loved one. Some of the patients had dealt with anxiety before, but she says for the majority it was a new issue. 

“Grief and anxiety are inextricably linked,” Bidwell Smith explains. “We experience anxiety after a loss because losing someone we love thrusts us into a vulnerable place. It changes our day-to-day lives. It forces us to confront our mortality, and facing these fundamental human truths about life’s unpredictability causes fear and anxiety to surface in profound ways.”

When Bidwell Smith began experiencing the increase in patients dealing with anxiety and grief, she began to research. Though she says there was little information about the connection between the two, she was able to use her own experiences with anxiety and grief after losing her mother at age 18. 

She says she soon came to realize that much of the anxiety in such situations stemmed from not having processed the loss thoroughly due to expectations from society to move on from a loss. 

“Unfortunately, this is a common experience for many people who lose a loved one,” she writes. “Our culture is not very adept at making space for grief. That was true over 20 years ago when I was going through it, and is still largely true today.”

Bidwell Smith references one case in particular where a patient in his 40s had lost his father and had come to see her about six months later, as he’d been dealing with panic attacks and bursts of anger. 

Bidwell Smith worked with the patient to confront his loss, after which he began to feel relief from the anxiety and anger. Additionally, she says it is important to address how loss makes us “confront our mortality.”

“When we lose someone significant, we are starkly reminded of how precarious life is, how the unexpected lurks at every turn and how wide-ranging the actual impact of loss can be,” she writes.

According to Bidwell Smith, treating anxiety brought on by grief is doable through cognitive behavioral therapy, deep grief processing and meditation techniques. But it’s also important that the societal narrative around grief begins to change. 

“Working through these components is vital to healing ­grief-related anxiety,” Bidwell Smith writes. “As a culture, we tend to push away our thoughts, fears and questions about death. Given how reluctant our society is to deeply explore this topic, it’s no wonder that we falter individually when faced with it. After all, at the root of most anxiety is fear. And what are most people afraid of more than death?”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.