When someone we care about passes away, we commemorate their life in various ways. Many families host a religious or secular memorial service where people gather to reflect on their loss and share fond remembrances of the deceased. Some bereaved people plant trees, write poems or donate to their loved one’s favorite charitable organization. All these activities can help create a sense of closure and allow you to process your grief on your terms.
In addition to the mourning you do after someone you care about passes away, anticipatory grief is another form of suffering that occurs in advance of a loved one’s death. For example, if someone in your family has recently received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, you may begin feeling the pain of their loss while they are still alive. For some people, this grief can hurt as much as a loved one’s death, and sometimes even more.
Experiencing Grief and Loss Before a Loved One Passes Away
Anticipatory grief is a natural response to learning about a close friend or family member’s chronic disease or incurable sickness – especially if you are assuming a caretaking role. When someone has an illness that causes their condition to decline rapidly or leads to permanent personality changes, watching part of them slip away from you while they are still alive can be heartbreaking. And, when you are constantly dreading what sorrows tomorrow may bring, it becomes increasingly challenging to live in the moment and enjoy your remaining time with the person you love.
If you’re spending most of your energy looking after someone who needs you, you might also feel a sense of lost independence and freedom, which could lead to guilt, anger and resentment. It’s crucial to remember that these feelings are typical amid such challenging circumstances. If you are taking on any part of the daily responsibility for a loved one’s well-being, you may feel the resulting pain and loss more acutely than someone who is less involved.
Healthy Ways to Deal With Anticipatory Grief
While anticipatory grief is normal, you’ll need to give yourself an outlet for working through it instead of trying to bottle it up inside or deflecting it with maladaptive coping mechanisms. Here are a few strategies you can try.
- Control the controllables: A loved one’s illness can be unpredictable, but you can put yourself into the driver’s seat by educating yourself about the progression of their disease, the available treatment options and the side effects of any medications they are taking. If it doesn’t cause too much stress, you can offer to help plan their memorial service, update their will or put their financial affairs in order.
- Enjoy your remaining time together: Remember, your loved one is grieving, too. They probably hate to see the toll their illness is taking on you and wish things could be different. If you’re both feeling up for it, spend a day or an afternoon doing something other than focusing on the circumstances at hand. Go for a walk in the park or prepare a meal together.
- Find an outlet for your feelings: Whether you choose to confide in a journal, a therapist or a close friend who understands what you’re going through, you can find comfort in sharing your complicated emotions and keep them from taking a toll on your health.
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