Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Anticipatory Grief: Digging a Grave

I was on a quiet morning walk when the words of an oncoming Bluetoothed walker reached me:
"This may sound strange, but I started digging her grave in the backyard."
Pretty sure I was not overhearing a murder plot, I guessed that a dear pet was reaching her final days. While I have only once created a backyard grave, I am well acquainted with anticipatory grief.

The grief forum website WYG, what's your grief.com hosted a contributor, Litsa, who shared her experience with anticipatory grief. She explains why we jump-the-gun to begin grief's painful journey:
"Here is the thing about grief – though we think of it as something that happens after a death, it often begins long before death arrives.  It can start as soon as we become aware that death is a likelihood.   Once death is on the horizon, even just as a possibility, it is natural that we begin to grieve."
So, if I could, I'd console that walker with an assurance of normality. No matter how much you strive to be in the present moment with your dying loved one (pet or person,) this is a natural reaction; in fact, you may have experienced it during a loved one's short term illness or their serious surgery:  "what if they die?!"

Are you Experiencing Anticipatory Grief?

Harriet Hodgson, author of Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, explained some of the intense dynamics of "AG"in her post at The Caregiver Space. Imagine waking up each morning on a roller coaster:
  • Your thoughts jump around
  • You face an unstoppable force
  • Suspense and fear are part of your life
  • You feel sorrow and hope at the same time

Anticipatory Grief is Not a Shortcut

I used to think that anticipatory grief gave you a "head start" and would make the post-death grieving shorter, easier. But this proved to be a naive notion. It depends...
Grief is such an individual experience-- individualized by your nature and needs, and the relationship you share. For some, anticipatory grief lengthens the miles on this difficult road. For others, it includes intense advocacy and exhausting caregiving so that after the death, the living "rest in peace," as well...for awhile.

How can we be supportive to a friend's anticipatory grief?  

"Blue Birds" Suzy St. John
  • Express the reminder:  "This is normal!"
  • Be a good listener. Take a moment to sit together--perhaps with a cup of tea.
  • Avoid giving advice but if you've had a truly parallel experience, share a thought or two.
  • Encourage self care; this can be a time swamped with caregiving.
  • Simply ask: "How can I help?"

Bucket full of Love=Bucket List Opportunities

Litsa notes:  "Consider how you and your loved one will want to spend that time together.  Though what we want may not always be possible, do your best to spend your remaining time together in a way you and your loved one find meaningful."

In my post, Final Conversations, I encouraged conversations of gratitude, affirmation, and life celebration. Ask questions that will spur stories, laughter, hugs. Bucket List opportunities don't have to involve parachutes or plane tickets! Quality time together is priceless, but ask your loved one if there are destinations, social occasions, or adventures they long to enjoy. 

Ask your friend how you might help with wish fulfillment.  Your role could involve driving, research and reservations, or a respite visit. Respite visits are of tremendous value:  family can step away and the ill person may find relief in visiting with a neutral person. 

My final message to readers who want to support a friend during anticipatory grief:  Be patient.

Thank you for caring!

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