When someone close to your heart passes away, you want to celebrate their life and memories of happier times spent together. Some families have a public memorial service to honor their loved one and reflect on their loss. Others find peace in a quiet, private ceremony where they may scatter ashes or put flowers at a gravesite. All these activities can help bring you a sense of inner calm as you move through the grieving process at your pace.
Besides the mourning you do after a loved one’s death, anticipatory grief is a type of anguish you can experience while a person you care about is still alive. For instance, if a relative has recently learned that they are terminally ill, you may begin feeling bereaved before they pass on. In some cases, this grief can be as painful as a loved one’s death, or even more.
Experiencing Grief and Loss Before a Loved One’s Death
Anticipatory grief is a human response to a close friend or family member’s imminent death, especially if you have taken on part of the responsibility for looking after their needs. Many illnesses cause dramatic personality changes or a rapid decline in the person’s health and abilities, which is heartbreaking to witness. When you live under the shadow of tomorrow’s worries, you may find it impossible to be mindful and enjoy your remaining time with the person you love.
People who have assumed a caretaker role may also spend a significant amount of time and energy with a dying loved one, thus leading to a loss of freedom that can engender a sense of guilt or resentment. If you’re experiencing these feelings, it’s crucial not to blame yourself in such difficult circumstances. Empathy can make you feel more acute grief and pain than someone who is not as emotionally close to the situation.
How to Handle Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief is not necessarily an unhealthy reaction to the stress and sadness of learning about a loved one’s illness. However, it’s vital to work through it with healthy coping mechanisms instead of trying to sweep your problems under the rug. Here are a few tactics to try.
- Understand what you can control: While you can’t predict the future, you can give yourself more peace of mind by learning everything you can about how a loved one’s illness might progress, current treatment options, and potential risks of any prescriptions they need to take. If it’s not too anxiety-inducing, you could also offer to help plan the memorial service, update their will, or organize their finances.
- Find ways to enjoy your remaining time together: Don’t forget, your loved one is grieving, too. In addition to the pain of their illness, they are probably mourning the loss of their health and independence and the toll it’s taken on your relationship. When you’re both feeling well enough for it, spend time doing something other than focusing on the daily tasks associated with minimizing their symptoms. Look through old family photo albums or go to an art exhibit.
- Give your feelings an outlet: Whether you prefer to document your feelings in a journal or confide in a therapist or close friend who understands what you’re going through, you can find peace by communicating your complex emotions and prevent them from undermining your well-being.
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