I have an irrational and extreme fear of my grandson dying | Ask Philippa


The dilemma I need to understand why I worry so much about my grandson. We have two much-loved children, long grown up, and now, late and unexpectedly, an adored grandson, our only grandchild. As a mother I have, of course, worried about my own children over the years – their safety, their health, their happiness– but not more than most parents. However, the worry I have for my grandson is on a totally different scale. I am petrified of something happening to him and by this I mean him dying. These thoughts consume me too often and may be triggered by something I read or hear, or simply by my own thoughts. There is no limit to my fears and right now he is just a year old and as fit as can be. Can someone be too precious?

Philippa’s answer A one-year-old grandson cannot be too precious to his grandmother. It is as though you have developed a phobia. Phobias appear to be irrational, yet they’re not something you can talk yourself out of – I’m sure that you’ve tried – and they can come with unpleasant physical symptoms, like panic attacks. I have tried to come up with some theories for you and if any of them resonate, that might help.

Losing your grandson would be awful. However, he is fit and well and there is a greater possibility that you will die before him. I wonder if missing out on seeing how his life turns out might be your real fear. You have seen your children settled, you can imagine how their lives will pan out, therefore if you had died before your grandson came along, it might have meant that you didn’t miss out on too much. But dying now? Or when he is still a child? Missing out on meeting the person he will become? I can understand that is a very real fear and one you might not want to look at face on and so one theory of mine is that your unconscious has put your fear of death at one remove. In this way your mind has played a trick on you and made you terrified of his death rather than being frightened about your own mortality, which may be the underlying fear.

It may be as though you have an inchoate sense that you only continue to live through him. Perhaps your grandson has given you the chance of passing down your genes forever. He is your chance of eternal life, if you like. Without him living to reproduce his own young, your line stops, your legacy stops and your biology won’t go on living through further generations. Now, to put such a feeling into words might sound too mad, so you can neither consciously think this nor voice it. And so your body gives you this phobia instead. This could be why the idea of his death is more terrifying than your own, because only if he lives do you get to carry on.

Your mind may have made a connection between your continual worry and your grandson’s staying alive. In other words, at an unconscious, superstitious level, you feel that it is your worrying that keeps him safe. Some people with a fear of flying believe that it is only their worrying that keeps the aeroplane in the air – it doesn’t make for an enjoyable flight.

People who are religious suffer less from extreme fear of their, or another’s, death than atheists do because one of the functions of religion is to make meaning out of our mortality. But the irreligious can come up with their own meanings. The meaning I make of my mortality is that some people I have known and loved will outlive me, and if I love them now, they will know, even after I am gone, that they are worthy of love. I will be dead, but my love will live on in them. If you wanted to use this meaning as a comfort, you could come to believe that every time you teach, play with, or comfort him, you invest your love in him. And this love will go on after you cease to be. And your daughter will be investing the love she received from you into him, your grandson will have your love and all the love he has received from others, too, deep within him and it will be forever, because he will pass it on, to his children and to his friends, colleagues, mentees and relatives.

It may be that when you were a baby you, too, felt “too precious” to your parents or grandparents, who may have lost people in the Second World War. Their anxiety, as they hugged you too tight, may be remembered by you on a bodily level, and your grandson has awakened that old somatic memory.

Love hurts; your grandson’s preciousness may be hurting you because you know that with love comes an equal amount of pain. The pain you felt when your grandparents and parents died was the cost of loving them and you cannot spare your children or grandchild the pain of losing you, but it is theirs to feel. Concentrate on shifting your focus on being in the present, being in the here and now and learn to see the world afresh through the eyes of your precious grandson.

If none of this helps, you might want to consider trying some existential psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Visit psychotherapy.org.uk.

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