During the Christmas holiday I spent some time with my 8-month year old nephew who was going through a phase of obsessing over his daddy. He cried, wailed and squealed when his daddy put him down, passed him to someone else or left the room. Clearly he had become so attached to his father that being apart from him even just for a second caused him so much distress.
This got me thinking about how my relationship with loved ones have changed since losing my mama in my twenties. Witnessing firsthand the fragility of life and how it can rip you apart from those you love in a heartbeat has taught me to treasure the people closest to me and to never again take them for granted. However, it has also left me with a deep rooted and sometimes paralysing separation anxiety, caused by the fear that each time I them could be the last.
Having conducted some research into this I now understand that separation anxiety caused by the loss of a loved one, particularly a parent, is more common than one might think, and isn’t just felt by children. That being said, there is very little documented about grown up separation anxiety and therefore I hope that sharing my experience of it will help raise awareness and reach others who may be feeling that same.
Death is a foreign concept
Losing a parent as a child or a young adult will usually be a premature loss, one that occurred considerably before you’ve had the opportunity to properly contemplate or digest the concept of death itself. There may have been times where you play acted dying with friends or frustratingly wished someone dead in the midst of a teenage strop, but at an age where you have your whole life ahead of you and there is so much focus on living, it is unlikely that you would have considered the reality of what losing a loved one to death really means.
As a child I remember being terrified of my mama walking out and never returning. This fear of abandonment would consume my nightmares, and daily I would creep into her bed at night just to check that she was still there, each time breathing a sigh of relief when I felt the warmth of her body under the covers. On rare occasions when my parents argued or when I drove her mad with my fiery teenage hormones, I fleetingly considered the prospect of her leaving us, but the thought passed in a second. We were a unit held together by the unbreakable bond of unconditional love. This bond had never really been tested so naively I believed that it would never break.
The truth about loss
I genuinely believe that it is impossible to understand the true meaning of loss until you have personally experienced the death of a loved one. When I was younger I experienced tumultuous break ups and heart breaks that I thought that I would never recover from. I remember friends saying to me that going through a break up was akin to grieving for the death of a loved one. How wrong they were. For experiencing true loss is knowing that the person who you have lost can never, ever return.
Once you have experienced the pain of true loss, this apprehension of loss can crystallise over all your relationships, causing you to fear the same fate for your other loved ones.
Dr. Camilla Gesi conducted a research study in 2016, which examined the relationship between complicated grief and separation anxiety disorder. The study looked at a sample of adults seeking help for complicated grief (that is, traumatic grief or prolonged grief after the death of a very close loved one where symptoms are experienced over 12 months after the death). The study showed that out of a sample of 151 adults seeking treatment for complicated grief, 70 percent also had separation anxiety disorder.
My experience of separation anxiety
My separation anxiety comes and goes, depending on how vulnerable I feel. Sometimes it can be suppressed so that it never manifests on the surface of my mind but most of the time it is there, eating away at me and echoing my most troubling and haunting childhood nightmares.
My husband travels a lot with work, which really tests my separation anxiety to the limit. Every time he boards a plane, I become like a dog with bone, rapidly checking the flight updates to make sure the plane has landed and calling him intensely until I hear his voice on the other end. During the time he is away I experience sleepless nights, lingering anxiety and uncontrollable sadness, as my mind and body prepares for the worst, that he may not return. Even when friends go away on holiday, they are sometimes surprised by my attentiveness at remembering their trips abroad and asking how they are going. I disguise this well but really it is out of complete fear that I will never see them again.
It is ironic that every time I leave the house to go to work in the morning, my dogs believe that I will never return, as what they don’t know is that I feel exactly the same way.
If you are experiencing separation anxiety after the loss of a loved one, know that what you are experiencing is exceptionally common and can be explained by your personal experience of the finality of death. It is a very real sensation and should never be dismissed, overlooked or laughed at. Sometimes it can be controlled, but if it ever gets to stage that it hinders your life then please do not be afraid to seek help from your GP or a local therapist.