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Anticipatory Grief: The Other Elephant in the Room

REPOST: I unearthed this gem from a previous blog of mine dated 02 April 2018. I hope you find it an interesting read. -GF

I was told around age 8 that one day I would likely come home and find out that my dad had died. He was 55 when I was born and had basically every coronary issue imaginable.

Being the pragmatic problem solver I am, I started running scenarios in my head what the Moment of Death would be like and then what Life After Dad would look like.

That's a stressful game for an eight-year-old to play.

I played it until I was 25.


Jumping Ahead of Yourself

Death of a loved one is experienced in many different ways, including mourning that person while they are still alive. And knowing that you are about to experience a powerful loss, fear can take root.

Interestingly, fear of death can have a sneaky companion, one that many can recognize but most don't have the proper term to use to acknowledge it:

Anticipatory grief. Mourning a loss before it happens.

When someones is already mourning before the loss, the fear of the soon-to-be-real fact of death can take a stranglehold over a person's life. Suddenly, you're frozen in place. Everything is wrong - possibly horrific - and you have no idea what to do. You are lost in a sea of unending sorrow, and all you can focus on is that it can only get worse since your loved one hasn’t died yet.

Compounding the situation is either your friends and family (and honestly, probably yourself) are telling you to snap out of it, your loved one isn’t dead yet. You’re not entitled to experience this emotion yet. Don’t talk about it, and just get on with things.

Well, guess what? You are entitled to have your emotions on your time schedule. But when those emotions are so powerful that you get stuck or overwhelmed, that’s the time to find a better way to process what you’re going through.

My Trick to Getting Unstuck

About a dozen years later, I had my second brush with Anticipatory Grief when my mother was diagnosed with end-stage metastatic breast cancer. She was given six months to live, tops.

She made it three months.

This time around, though, instead of becoming incapacitated by the impending loss or running all the Worst Case Scenarios my 39-year-old self could come up with, I focused on her emotional comfort. Her physical comfort was as good as it could be with her medical team. Out of my immediate control. But taking her on a day trip somewhere she’d been wanting to go? Making sure she had her favorite dessert? Finding a new joke to tell her? Those were things completely in my control.

The stunning thing about those three months is that while my focus was on her, I was addressing my own pressing self-care issue: I was rolling with the punches of anticipatory grief instead of letting it knock me around. Cry a little, noting this would probably be The Last Time We Did This Activity Together. Process the grief. Experience the grief of impending loss. Just acknowledge the fact she was getting ready to die and it was okay for me to be sad about that ahead of time. No need to force a happy face for her sake. I gave myself permission to be me.

In letting the waves of pre-death grief just be, the fear that type of emotion can bring was dramatically reduced. I stayed (mostly) functional. I wasn’t consumed by grief...nor fear...24/7. I got to have some amazing quality time with my mother.

Tame That Elephant

If you're experiencing fear of a loved one's approaching death - or if you're overwrought and simply cannot deal with the fact of the trajectory - you may also be experiencing anticipatory grief.

Trained therapists are worth their weight in gold with coping and releasing mechanisms for identifying and reigning in this monster. Reach out and find one. If you already know that's what you're experiencing and just need a safe place to vent and process, I can help, too.

Have you ever experienced anticipatory grief? Share your experience in the comments below.

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