The Grief That Doesn’t Wait For Death
© Iris J. Arenson-Fuller
(This is an article of mine that was published some years back in a now-defunct magazine. This morning, there was a discussion in the Facebook group I lead for widows, about the topic of anticipatory grief. I decided to post the article here on my blog.)
Grief is not always like an animal waiting to attack immediately after death. When we have a gravely ill loved one, the grief can visit us long before death finally occurs. This grief may be experienced by the sick person, as well as by caregivers and other family members. It can even be stronger and more intense than the grief felt after death, because the close loved ones and primary caregivers are typically stressed and exhausted, as well as grieving. When the illness is one that brings regular crises, and the physical demands of caring for the sick person are many, the body and mind of the caregiver are on constant alert, with adrenaline flowing. This takes an enormous toll on people. Very often, the spouse or main caregiver must also deal with handling money matters, coordinating medical appointments, sometimes with researching treatments, with still running the household and/or taking care of kids or a job, as well.
There are some “benefits”, though that may seem an odd way of viewing such a situation where we are watching someone whom we dearly love suffer, and we know he or she is going to die. One such so-called benefit is that we may have an opportunity to follow the lead of the dying individual in starting up deep conversations, if that person is open to it. This can turn into a time of finding peace and cementing love in a way that is good for everyone. Many times the dying person really wants to discuss important and emotional topics. Some caregivers will discourage such conversations because they need to continue to deny the realities of what is happening. It feels too much for them to handle. They may fear that it will upset the dying individual too greatly to hear their honest feelings expressed, but this is usually not so. In some relationships this is a chance to say things that have been too-long left unsaid, and to take care of unfinished emotional business that may have been lingering or causing conflict for years. I don’t mean that it’s a time for dredging up old disagreements, but for listening to each other, if that is physically possible, and perhaps even for making amends or apologies, if they are sincere and heartfelt. Many realize instinctively, that this is their last opportunity for warmth and closeness as a couple, or as a family. In spite of the pain, terror, and overwhelming sadness, in a way they are still making memories that will hopefully help to sustain the survivor after the loved one is gone, and perhaps long into the future. The relationship is still very much alive and as long as it is, it’s dynamic and there is always room for tenderness, and possibility for growth.
This might be a good time, if the ill person is willing, to preserve memories by creating videotapes, audio recordings, or writing letters. The loved one may be too sick or weak to write but can sometimes dictate thoughts and feelings. He or she may just be able to listen to memories that you recount and to enjoy them. I have used memory jars and memory boxes with my own ill loved ones and while there were many tears shed, there was also much enjoyment on all parts, and some smiles. Children and teens can be made part of the process by having them come in and listen to stories, helping to write them down or videotape. Small kids can draw pictures to illustrate the family stories that are being told, or memories that they cherish. They might need a few prompts.
In some families, as strange as it seems, this time can be filled with love, in addition to the sadness. However, if the dying person doesn’t want to do this, it should never be forced.
If supports for the caregiver and the rest of the family are not already in place, it’s a good time to reach out and find them. It’s also important to acknowledge that you, the caregiver, is experiencing overwhelm and probably anticipatory grief. Though you may feel guilty about it, it’s crucial at this time that you find some people, if at all possible, to give you even short breaks to be able to get away. Being alone with your thoughts and your grief so you can let it out, journal or do whatever helps you, is truly valuable. Some people view grief as an obstacle that must be overcome, or a barrier they must somehow get around. There is no getting around grief. Pushing it aside only makes it spring back in greater force at a later date, and sometimes pretty immediately.
Waiting for a loved one to die saps most people’s strength and energy, even if they are very strong, physically and emotionally. It can also lead to something called “chronic grief” because you are so accustomed to being so sad and miserable, and fearful of the future too, that you have trouble getting out of those habits long after the person has died.
There are those who feel so guilty that they are already grieving the loss of their loved one before it even happens, that they keep shoving the thoughts and emotions as far back as they can be shoved. They interpret how they feel as almost “wanting the person to die”, or in a leap back to the magical thinking of childhood, as somehow hastening or causing the death to happen. It’s ultra-important that people who don’t acknowledge their own anticipatory grief and give it some kind of outlet, get some support and help, before and after the loss.
Sometimes people who have lived through a prolonged illness of a loved one, actually have a less intense reaction after the death. That never means they are hurting less than someone who has experienced a very sudden loss, or that they loved less. Sometimes there can be a profound sense of relief. This, in turn, can trigger guilt, especially if the ill person was very difficult to care for, or if the caregiver had feelings of anger, resentment or great frustration while the loved one was still alive. It’s important to know that sense of relief people may feel is completely normal, and that recurrent or strong guilt may warrant getting some professional help.
Actually everything about grief is “normal” because there is no such thing as normal. There are some human commonalities and observations over time, on which professionals have based their theories and created their techniques and tools for assistance. However, you are a unique individual. You may need to work hard to find a way of living after loss, and you may need help to do so, if your pain is so intense or prolonged that it interferes with your functioning, but please don’t let anyone tell you that your grieving is somehow incorrect, or not the way they think you should be doing it!
Iris J. Arenson-Fuller, PCC is a certified and credentialed Life and Loss Transformation Coach, who helps clients with difficult life stage, family and relationship changes. She specializes in loss and grief of all types and in adoption issues and adoption loss. Iris is also a published poet/writer.
Contact Iris via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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