By Sandy Thompson
It’s not uncommon for people to have strong feelings of grief related to the impending death of a friend or loved one. In fact, this experience is called anticipatory grief. The person might be dying from a terminal illness, fading away to dementia, or slowly killing themselves with drugs or alcohol. All of these scenarios (and others) can cause a person to start the grieving process before the actual death of that person.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way and in their own time. Some people find that the more they allow themselves to feel that grief while anticipating another’s death, the easier it is to cope when the actual death occurs. Others will say it makes no difference, the grieving process they experience as a result of the death of a loved one, even though expected, is intense and difficult.
WHEN VS HOW
WHEN a person experiences the grief process isn’t really as important as HOW. Like many people, I have experienced anticipatory grief over the course of my lifetime. It happened when I lost grandparents, my mom, and a close friend; each died of various illnesses. I currently find myself in the anticipatory grief process of two very important people in my life: an extremely dear friend and a very close family member. Right now, to me, cancer and dementia stink! I am just a little angry (that’s a stage of the grieving process and it’s OK to feel angry about the situation) but I am experiencing more feelings of sadness and fear. See, I don’t want to “do life” without either one of them.
My friend has been a great mentor, co-worker, travel buddy, friend, and “sister.” I consider her part of my family even though we are not biologically related. We have shared many laughs and tears since our friendship formed back in the mid 1990s when we met at work. We have seen each other through crisis situations at work, illnesses, several “girls’ trips,” trips with our husbands and other friends, deaths of family members, too many embarrassing moments and belly laughs to count, but most important, a real and true friendship. I already miss her and she is still alive.* Her illness will take her away from everyone she loves no matter how much we don’t want that.
My family member is experiencing some problems with his thinking. While death is not imminent right now, the man he used to be is slipping away. He has shown me that hard work, faith in God, unconditional love, and family mean something in this thing we call life. He reminds me to always have cash and at least one check blank on me at all times “just in case.” I love listening to him tell stories about the “old days” and to hear how he took risks in business and had the guts and determination to successfully run for public office. He is losing the ability to identify day from night, he makes inappropriate remarks (while funny, they just shouldn’t be said out loud!), and he sees things nobody else does. My primary concern right now is that he is comfortable, feels safe at all times, and that his dignity is preserved. I don’t want to lose this man’s guidance and presence. All my life I have known him to work hard, play hard, and always have time for me when I needed his guidance.
HOW TO COPE
Methods of coping with anticipatory grief that I found helpful include:
- Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about the course of the illness of your loved one. The more you know about a loved one’s illness the better you can prepare yourself for what’s coming.
- Give yourself permission. Allow yourself to FEEL your feelings anywhere, anytime. If needed, make sure to take care of any “unfinished emotional business” you may have with your loved one. Have those intimate conversations about their final wishes or make apologies where needed. Your future self will thank you for doing so.
- Continue to make memories! Just because the end is coming doesn’t mean we (or they) need to stop living and laughing. Memories made during this time of the grieving process will be priceless in the future.
- Activate your support group. If you are the primary caregiver for your loved one, make use of your support system to help you. That may mean having someone sit with your loved one while you get groceries, attend your own medical appointments, work, or just go out for a nice meal with friends. Yes, this is both encouraged and allowed!
- Find support. If you need to talk it all out with someone not associated with the situation, seek out a counselor or support group. Talk therapy, coaching, and support groups with people who have experience with what you’re going through can be a great source of support, education, and encouragement.
May you always strive to take advantage of the time you have with the special people in your life.
Sandy Thompson is a ND Licensed Addiction Counselor, Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery trained family recovery coach, and owner of Path to Pono, specializing in business consulting and family recovery coaching. *Since the time of writing and submitting this article, Sandy’s friend Roxann passed away. She died on July 4, 2019.