I’m terrified that I will die, leaving my son. How can I cope?

I’m 54 and happily married, with a 15-year-old son. In the past, I didn’t have maternal feelings, but since having my son, I feel as if an extreme emotional switch has been turned on. I used to be unafraid of dying, but that changed after he was born, and I now suffer with extreme anxiety about dying and leaving him.

My parents are healthy, but I also dread them dying. I keep this to myself, as my husband’s mother died when he was 14; that is still fresh in his mind, although he deals with it well. In more level-headed times, I rationalise that our son will be OK. He is a clever young man who will be fine, but I need to break out of this vicious circle of overemotional despair.

Financially, we’re doing OK, but don’t own a property and have no savings. In our youth, we chose to travel instead of paying a mortgage, which seemed like a great idea at the time. I’m terrified that my child will struggle, because we have nothing to leave him.

I’m wary of seeing a counsellor, as I saw someone for postnatal depression and they weren’t the person I was looking for. It feels as if getting the right support is a gamble. How can I deal with these feelings?

It is a gamble, finding the right therapist, and not all therapists are equal. But when you do (and it can take time), it can be life-changing. So don’t discount it. What happened with your postnatal depression? Were you able to heal, or did you bury it? Because a lot of what you describe reminded me of how a new parent feels: that rush of overwhelming emotion, the catastrophising, the loss of perspective.

Around the time of the menopause, extreme anxiety can grip you in a shocking way and make you feel as if you are going mad. This isn’t said to minimise the way you feel, but it may be a factor. You say that you have felt very emotional since having your son, but what prompted you to write now?

We also can’t ignore the fact that your son is about the same age as your husband was when his mother died,and this is something that is bound to resonate.

I talked about your problem with Susanna Abse, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk). We discussed how your previous life seems at odds with the restraints of being a parent, and how it’s very difficult to be devil-may-care when, as Abse put it, you have “skin in the game”. I remember finding out I was pregnant with my first child and realising I hadn’t really known the meaning of the word “worry” until then. “When you have a child, it’s the end of the idea that you bounce and won’t get hurt,” Abse said.

I would go further and say that loving a child, a parent or a spouse means you don’t bounce any more. But what’s the alternative: not loving someone? All you can do is mitigate, by making sure that life is also full of other things, so you have some perspective.

“If you’ve always seen yourself as a free-spirited traveller who doesn’t need things, you might not like thinking of yourself as an extremely emotional person,” Abse said. So instead of owning these feelings, you might be projecting them on to others – because they feel too overwhelming. For example, you accept that you are anxious about leaving your son if you die, but he has not expressed this worry to you, has he? Maybe you are worried about him leaving you as he heads into early adulthood.

Equally, you imagine your husband cannot talk about losing his mother, but maybe the conversation would be too difficult for you. Sometimes, by working out whose anxiety it really is, we can find a way through a problem. Abse felt that you should talk to your husband about his: he may welcome the opportunity.

Big life transitions are hard; you can’t run away from them. I describe them as huge waves: sometimes all you can do is be hit by them, and try to remain standing until they pass.

• Send your problem to annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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The Guardian

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