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  • Writer's pictureHardingstone Ceremonies

Anticipatory Grief

Photo by Leighann Blackwood

My parents are no longer with me and my family, at least not in physical ways.  When I think of them now, my mind travels back not the five or seven years since their death but further to a time when they were, perhaps not in their prime but fit, well and the answer to all my worries.  My Mum and Dad were big characters, full of fun, gumption and adventure; they were my world and I owe everything I am to their nurture, belief in me and tough love when required.  However, in their final years they were none of these things - for the five or so years before they died they became steadily less able in both mind and body.  Whilst they and we were thankfully spared the tragedy of dementia they were nevertheless shadows of their younger selves.

It is only recently that I have begun to understand the term anticipatory grief - the grief you feel for a loved one who whilst physically present in your life, is no longer able or willing to fulfil the role you expect from them. Anticipatory grief recognises that loss sometimes starts months or even years before a loved one actually dies.  As a person’s health, be that physical or mental, declines it can seem that they are fading away and it is easy to feel that one’s relationship with them is also disappearing.  In a sense it is, or at least changing sometimes into something unrecognisable.  This can be incredibly hard to manage and cruelly it often coincides with the individual requiring more and more support from others. 

It is normal in these circumstances to feel a cocktail of emotions ranging from sadness to anger and from frustration to despair.  Guilt often dominates during the months or years trying to support increasingly frail loved ones - you want to do the right thing for the person you love but spending time with them can be frustrating and unrewarding and needs to be balanced with the other demands of life, including work and family neither of which can usually be put on hold for extensive blocks of time.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge

I think it is important to recognise this experience for what it is, the agonising process of losing a loved one.  When people pass away, we understand that their relatives and friends need space and time to mourn.  We offer support by making some practical contributions such as cooking a meal or suggesting a shared activity to help with the loneliness we know they are experiencing.  Well, if someone is experiencing anticipatory grief their needs are, I would suggest, very similar; they need the support of others to literally and figuratively ‘hold them up’ as they navigate the loss of this precious relationship.  Ironically of course, because of the demands of their caring duties, the person you seek to help will actually have less time to accept the support!  Don’t let this stop you from trying - fitting in time for a coffee to enable some unburdening, offering to do a shop or other practical task or  even just reaching out to show you understand can be a help.

Photo by Milan Popovic

It is said that loneliness is not the state of being alone but rather of feeling unconnected to those around us.  The demands of caring can be very isolating especially if there is no one to share the experience with or those around you don’t understand.  Be kind to yourself - recognise how tough things are and let people who can help in.  Putting aside even just a little time for yourself can help you feel more balanced and able to remain calm or even cheerful in your caring role.  Reaching out to friends or organisations such as the Good Grief Trust can help you to feel less burdened. Accepting you need help can enable you to offer quality support to your loved one.

Whilst you are experiencing this stage it is, of course, all consuming and when it comes to an end as it inevitably will, it can feel as if it dominates every facet of your memories.  But, for most people, slowly perspective changes and our memories rebuild the person into a more complete version of themselves.  When I think of my parents now, I remember them as the larger than life characters they were to me for the vast majority of my life and thinking of them makes me smile.

By Catrina Young, Leicestershire Heart-led celebrant, Marking Life’s Moments.

© Hardingstone Ceremonies, May 2024

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