The grief that comes before loss
I began to grieve my mother’s death six months before she died. Doctors had diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and COPD, but for years Mom was able to get around with some assistance. However, in the fall of 2013, she lost the use of her legs. She was bedfast for the next six months. Watching her go downhill during that time, I began to grieve. I was in a state of anticipatory grief.
That’s a type of grief that happens when you start mourning before an actual loss occurs. It can take place when you expect a loved one or a pet to die. Some people experience it when a divorce is almost final. Others may have anticipatory grief when they learn they are about to be laid off. It can happen any time you expect a significant loss in your life.
I think anticipatory grief is less understood and less socially accepted than the grieving that comes after death. People may tell you, “Well, at least you still have him” or “Be glad she’s hanging on so you can spend more time with her.”
They don’t realize that the dying person is not the person they were before, and in watching them try to die, you aren’t the same person either. Your relationship is transforming because both of you are changing. You’ve moved into unfamiliar territory, and that can be scary.
I remember feeling as if I might lose my mind during those six months.
As you anticipate the death of a loved one, you begin to reflect on how your life will change when that person is no longer in it. Often it’s all you can think about, which is stressful. I remember feeling as if I might lose my mind during those six months.
Anticipatory grief can leave you with a sense of incompleteness, a feeling that “this is never going to end.” Human beings find satisfaction in beginnings and endings, so this type of uncertainty can be hard to take. You may feel as if your life is on hold.
Feeling like it’s never going to end doesn’t mean you want your loved one to die. It means you want the terrible feelings associated with their dying to end. You want your energy back. You want peace of mind.
You would think that experiencing a long period of anticipatory grief would prepare you for the moment the person dies. That’s not always so. Even though I sat with my mom and held her hand in her final hours, the moment I realized she was dead, I was shocked.
I watched her die.
I was surprised when she died.
It was a weird state of being.
Anticipatory grief may allow you to find closure.
I suppose there’s one positive thing that can happen with anticipatory grief. You may try to take care of any unresolved issues you have with the dying person. You may find yourself forgiving what you once thought was unforgivable, or apologizing when you had sworn you’d never say “I’m sorry.”
Anticipatory grief may allow you to find closure. And that can make the next stage of your grief—the pain that comes after death—a bit more bearable.