Today, I’d like to talk about anticipatory grief in general, and my experience of it in particular. In the process, I’ll offer a few tips for dealing with anticipatory grief – which is exactly as it sounds. It’s the experience of grieving–not at the time of death–but long before when the specter of death becomes visible on the horizon.
Here’s My Story
My ex-husband died on June 16th, 2015. We had gotten the diagnosis of “stage 4 colon cancer” some two and a half years earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. (That holiday has never been the same, by the way.) I remember his phone call that morning so clearly as it was the moment the seed of anticipatory grief was planted–and quickly took root–deep in my heart. There it stayed, growing stronger and more complex with each passing day. At first, it felt like fear; transformed into anger and finally became an all-pervasive sadness – tinged with hopelessness.
His situation was just one thing I was dealing with at the time; our dog, Courage, was diagnosed (almost at the same time) with congestive heart failure. Certainly, 2012 was a long year; taking Matt to chemotherapy every two weeks and then coming home to provide compassionate end-of-life care for the dog. Watching them both decline was heartbreaking.
You could say there were really two seeds planted deep in my heart that season. There they stayed, rooting themselves deep.
Things to Remember about Anticipatory Grief
It’s very obvious to you after telling you that story; anticipatory grief refers to a grief reaction that occurs before an impending loss. And my story proved that anticipatory grief can be your constant companion for months – years, even. So how should you deal with it?
If you’re faced with the anticipated death of a close family member or friend–or as I was–a pet; just how should you handle your anticipatory grief? Grief educators tell us that we should:
- Accept that it’s a normal reaction to loss, whether in the moment, or in the foreseeable future.
- Acknowledge each of the small losses experienced along the way. As your family member’s health declines, their physical and/or mental abilities will be affected. One of the saddest days we had was when Matt called to tell me he could no longer start his motorcycle – he had to ask a stranger to start it for him in the parking lot of a local store. He was devastated by the change.
- Reflect on the time left, and determine how you wish to spend it. There’s more to this experience than visiting doctor’s offices. Find spaces in your days together for ‘quality time’.
- Communicate openly with friends and family. This is a tough one; yet it’s imperative to get the kind of support you need (and deserve) from those around you.
- Take good care of your physical and mental well-being. In all honesty, this is where I ‘dropped the ball’. Thanks to hindsight, I realize that during those 30 months, I drank too much alcohol and didn’t eat very well. Live and learn.
If things are really challenging for you, please think about seeing a counselor.
One thing that really helped me when I was caring for Matt and Courage during those months, was the realization that all things end. Buddhists call it “impermanence”:
“‘All…things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” The Buddha
Simply knowing “this too shall pass” made each day just a bit easier. Most of the time, anyway; some days I was too tired to see the truth of impermanence. Sometimes, I felt this trial would never end; but of course it did.
Using the “Anticipatory Grief Scale”
Educators at Brown University have developed a tool – the “Anticipatory Grief Scale”–which can help you see how well you’re dealing with an impending loss. While it specifies ‘dementia’ as the source of loss, I believe you can still find value in it – simply by changing ‘dementia’ to the condition in question. See if gives you some insight into how well you’re dealing with anticipatory grief.
Just an Interesting Aside
When I was thinking about this post, tear-vials came to mind. If you’re not already aware of them; tear vials (sometimes called ‘tear bottles’) have been around for centuries. For example, when someone died “in ancient Judea, mourners left a glass vial filled with their tears in their loved one’s tomb.” (Source)
Such a lovely idea, and in my imagination, I see myself putting hundreds of filled tear bottles in Matt and Courage’s respective burial places. For me, crying was a very big part of my experience of anticipatory grief. While psychologists argue about the benefits of crying is I know the act of shedding tears for these impending losses) was a major stress reliever. But, it’s always been easy for me to cry; certainly, if you’re not amenable to crying, don’t feel that you have to!
The third anniversary of Matt’s death is just a month away. All sorts of feelings again come to the surface, and it’s time to think about what it is my sons and I want to do to honor the man, and the day. If the anniversary of your loved one’s passing is coming up, check out “Twelve Ways to Celebrate a Loved One’s Death Anniversary.”