The Insidious Persistence of Grief

Regular readers of my blog know I struggle with anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be exacerbated by many things, such as lack of sleep and a collision of multiple outside stressors. Basically, anything that knocks aside my regular routine can trigger a rise in anxiety—even if I really want to do whatever it is that rocks the boat.

Over the past few weeks, my anxiety has been through the roof. I assumed at first that the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference was the culprit, since that is a major bump in my routine. Three days away from home, mixing and mingling, add in lack of sleep, and that’s enough to trigger me.

DSCN9802The PWC came and went, but the anxiety remained—a tension that ran from my throat to my stomach. Maybe my daughter’s preschool graduation was stressing me? That, too, came and went with no change. On top of the tension, I felt weepy, too—rather odd for me. What was going on?

Friday, June 19th, my anxiety peaked. The strangled feeling at the base of my throat made it hard to swallow, and made talking difficult. I didn’t want to eat. Anxiety-fatigue sucked the life from me, but I fought against it, recognizing my long-time enemy. I got my daughter ready for her first sleep-over, while often on the verge of tears.

That night, my husband and I went to see Huey Lewis and the News at the Borgata in Atlantic City. I knew the concert couldn’t possibly be the source of my anxiety. I had hardly even thought about it, I’d been so busy the past few weeks. Besides, the normal things I stress about—the driving and the venue—didn’t exist this time. My husband drove, and I had been to Atlantic City (although not the Borgata) enough times to feel at ease. I had even seen Huey Lewis twice before.

DSCN1540Huey Lewis put on a great show, as I expected. I rocked out, and every song brought a tsunami of memories from my younger days. Then he played Jacob’s Ladder. I teared up. My nose got sniffly. A sob rose in my throat.

And I understood.

Jacob’s Ladder was never one of my favorite Huey songs, but it took on new meaning when my friend Donna Hanson Woolman got cancer. The song is about a man trying to better his life, climbing “step by step, rung by rung” and all he wants from tomorrow “is to get it better than today.” Whenever I heard that song while Donna was fighting for her life, that was my wish—for the chemo to work a little every day, to climb back to health—to get it better than today.

One of the memories that had come flooding back as I listened to Huey Lewis play at the Borgata was the last time I had seen him play. Back in 2001, the group had toured to support their new album Plan B. Donna and I had seen them at the Keswick Theater, and that concert stands as one of the best I have ever seen. Huey played for more than 3 hours. He had to get permission from the unions to play past curfew. He rocked the house and Donna and I rocked with him, thrilled when he played songs he rarely played in his regular length sets.

That was the last concert I went to with Donna.

My mind had forgotten…

But my heart remembered.



When has grief caught you unawares?


  1. Matt Q. McGovern says

    I hope many people read this. I hate anxiety and wondering where it came from. It seems that you achieved a sense of closure and hopefully relief after going to the concert. Sometimes knowing what it was that your mind was concentrating on is a relief in itself.

    • Kerry Gans says

      Yes, usually once I know what’s festering in my head (that’s a lovely image, isn’t it?), I can release it. I just amazes me what our emotions remember that our brains forget.

  2. My sister always felt there must be some reason my mother seemed detached from her birthday. I saw reasons: my sister was the fourth child, her birthday was 11 days before Christmas. Either would stress anyone! But she felt there was more, and as an adult, researched more.

    My mom didn’t share until our late teens the fact that her mother had died in a hotel fire when my mom was 14. She had repressed so much of it, always saying her mother died “some time in January.” But my sister found newspaper records that put the date on my sister’s birthday! My mom’s bones knew it.

    For the first 15 years after my husband’s suicide it was the same for me—the spicy smell of dry leaves, the chill in the air, the golden slant of the October sun. I think our minds react to many more triggers than we realize. Maybe the trick is to listen sooner, assume our body is correct, and pamper ourselves a little.

    • Kerry Gans says

      That is so interesting about your mom. Dates do trigger us. I have a friend whose partner’s birthday fell on her mom’s death date. It was always a difficult day for her.

      I know exactly what you mean about the odd triggers. Right around the end of November and around the end of January, I often get anxious or depressed. Those two I recognize by now, though–Donna’s birthday was the end of November, and she died at the end of January. Even when I am too busy to “remember” that those dates are coming up, my body knows. My husband knows, too. Last year, I was all wound up about something and said something like, “Why am I so upset about this?” And he said, “It’s Donna’s birthday this week.” He nailed it.

  3. I have had terrible anxiety for five years, since my mother died. Her name was Cookie. She got that name as a kid because she was a tough cookie. Red hair, go-getter, fearless. She ran everything, took care of everything. If SHE could die, anything could happen! And I’ve been anxious ever since.

    Sorry about your friend.


  1. […] to the Borgata casino in Atlantic City, NJ, to see Huey Lewis and the News. It turned out to be a more emotional event than I had anticipated, but it was also an awesome […]

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