‘But what if they’re dead?’ – catastrophisation and the anxiety of loss


Sometimes, when I wake up at night and my dogs are lying around me, I have to reach out and check they’re still breathing. I gently lay a hand on their warm soft abdomen’s, hoping against hope that I will feel it rise beneath my fingertips. Just to quell the spark of panic, and the paranoia that one day I am going to have to say goodbye to them. And I have to reassure myself that I haven’t lost them just yet. They’re still here. They haven’t left me today.

They’re so perfect, and I can’t stop myself from fearing that they will fall through my fingertips at any moment. Because I don’t deserve them. They deserve better than me.

This is an anxiety of mine that extends far beyond just my dogs. I have reoccurring dreams about losing those close to me. I wake up sweating and crying, with memories of screaming and kicking and clawing at coffins containing family members and friends. Every time my phone rings and it’s someone I am not expecting to call, I freeze with my thumb hovering over the buttons – if I accept the call and it’s bad news, it’s almost like I’ve made the bad thing happen.

If my mum is just a few minutes late picking me up from the station, or a friend isn’t at the meeting point at the time we agreed, I will have images of mangled cars, bloodied windshields, crashed planes, and the twisted metal of a folded train.

Ever since I was called upstairs almost four years ago; ever since I responded to their shout with a frustrated huff and stomped up the stairs, only to find my family curled together in a grief-stricken bundle on the bed; ever since that day when we lost my Nanny, and my world collapsed inwards, the sound of someone calling me into their room fills me with terror. I’ll creep into the doorway with a look of terror in my face, shuffling my feet and rubbing my hands together furiously.

My parents tell me I need to stop assuming the worst when someone calls me to them, rings me when I’m not expecting, or doesn’t arrive exactly on time – but I don’t know how. My mind shoots aggressively to the grimmest outcome. I can’t stop it. Even when I’m aware of what my mind is doing, nothing I do will bring it back. My friends are dead. My family is dead. My dogs are dead. Everyone is dead and I am alone, and I can’t cope with that, I can’t be alone, I can’t, I can’t.

When I was going through cognitive behavioural therapy in my early twenties, they used the word ‘catastrophising’. This is a label that I have found stuck to myself over the years, especially when it comes to the fear of losing people I love.

If you show me a situation, I will show you the potential catastrophe.

When some people think ‘catastrophising’, they think of that infamous and actually-bloody-dismissive-and-awful phrase ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. This is so deeply inaccurate that it should be covered with police caution tape to keep people away. Catastrophising is not looking at a molehill and seeing a much bigger molehill (i.e. a mountain). Catastrophising is looking at a molehill, and being blasted with the mental image of someone I love getting their foot stuck in it, falling to the ground, and breaking their neck. I’m not looking at the small problem and seeing it as something bigger than it is; I’m looking at the issue and envisioning the worst possible outcome.

Could my friend, my mum, my brother get their foot stuck, fall and injure themselves fatally? It’s unlikely, but ultimately it’s possible.

I’m not imagining dragons, and ghosts, and witches, and other things that are definitely not going to happen. I’m imagining things that could happen.  However small the possibility of that thing happening, it’s still a possibility. And that’s what makes catastrophising so much more terrifying and scary than simple overreaction. That’s what makes it so hard to shake.

I’m so scared of losing people. I’m so scared I want grip them tightly, locking my arms around them so they can’t go, they can’t get hurt, they can’t leave me.

I’m not as scared of my own death. There’s still something terrifying about the big bad empty beyond, but it’s not like I will be conscious to know any different. What I’m scared of is the certainty of losing people – that one day I will have to bury my mum, bury my dogs, I know this, and it’s the knowing that hurts beyond reason.

When I think of losing my mum, I want to throw a tantrum and demand it never happen. I want to sit in a corner and rock gently. I want to say ‘no’ and ‘I won’t survive’ and ‘take me as well’. This is one of my biggest fears. My mum is my rock. She is my everything. The thought of losing her – even if it’s thirty, forty years away – is like a knife in my stomach. It could be years away, but it’s still going to happen. And when it does happen, it will still be too soon. And all I can think is I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.


I’m terrified of the people I love dying because I don’t know how I will continue to live afterwards. I can’t see beyond that. And it’s something that I am going to have to work on – it’s something that I am going to have to keep on and keep on and keep on working on. Because it is going to happen. And as I get older, this type of thing is going to be a more prevalent reality.

I don’t want to live my life in fear of the people around me dying. I want to be able to enjoy them whilst there here.

So, when I’ve finished typing this, I’m going to climb down from my bed and give my dogs the biggest, squishiest, sloppiest hugs they’ve ever had. I’m going to tell them how much I love them and love them and love them. I’m going to spend more time with my family members. I’m going to arrange to do more with my friends. I’m going to make sure we laugh and cry and hug and make all of the memories we possibly can.

And I’m going to try and not be so afraid of losing them that I forget to make the most of the time we actually have.




Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog queerlyautistic.com and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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