‘I feel like I have lost him already’ and ‘whenever I hear the phone ring, I fear this is THE call’ are common words I hear from people whose loved one is dying. ‘All my friends have gone and now I am the last one left’ and ‘I just don’t know how long I can keep going like this’ are what I hear from the dying. Both the dying persons and their loved ones are experiencing a unique grief process called anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief can begin at the time of diagnosis, treatment failures, sudden terminal illness or life-threatening injuries from an accident through the time of death. This space of time can be confusing, agonizing, tiring and at times can be beautiful and fulfilling.
Both the dying person and the loved one may be searching for reasons, some answers as to the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ questions. Our brains are naturally inclined to understand a circumstance so that it can respond — Do I flee? Do I fight?
What to do with Confusion:
- – Seek out the answers to your questions, tapping into qualified professionals with experience who can help you.
- – When the answers are not enough and the reality is ‘death is coming’ seek support from good friends, faith leaders and counselors who can walk with you.
- – Can you live with unanswered questions? How can you live with them? Holding both the known and the unknown in your heart and in your mind.
This time is often agonizing, filled with physical pain due to testing, surgeries, rehabilitation, where to live, how to “care give” and manage all other family/job responsibilities. Besides the physical agony of dying, there is the emotional, cognitive, and spiritual components of the process happening all at the same time. One flows through all these things throughout a day’s time.
What to do with Agonizing:
- – Make a checklist to help manage pain medications, therapy appointments, hospice visits
- – Make Self-Care a priority on your checklist: whatever it is that helps restore you, find time to do it.
- – Find respite care: this may be a friend to come over and attend to your loved one while you take a walk or take a nap.
- – Find a time each day to allow yourself time to feel. This could be a time to yell, cry or talk to others.
Beautiful & Fulfilling
This anticipatory grief time can be a time of beauty and can lead to many fulfilling moments. It can be considered a gift to have time to be able to receive and give some Final Gifts. Gifts can include, the time to stop and hold your loved one or the time to record their voice or to express to them your thoughts and feelings.
What to do with Beautiful & Fulfilling:
- – Spend some moments looking at your life. What are some areas of joy that your loved one gave to you? Can you express it to your loved one? What are some areas of pain or regret? Can you express it to your loved one?
- – Document these moments: Video record what you can so that you can hear their voice later.
- – Take a step back and look at all you have endured. How have you grown? Where did you shine?
During this time of anticipatory grieving expect a host of emotions and thoughts. If you feel like you are in need of support, please seek out help from a professional social worker or counselor who has experience with end-of-life or palliative care. Most people I know say they wish they would have reached out for support sooner than when they did because ‘it just helps to not go it alone.’
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