Anticipatory grief: Break on through to the other side
Tuesday, July 30, 2019
I received news about a friend recently — his seizures have now collided into a diagnosis of glioblastoma. A strong and steady man, trustworthy through and through, reliable, and ever-so-devoted is suddenly facing a life-limiting illness. His life has forever changed; and, so has ours.
While grief will have its way with us, through feeling, caring and with gratitude, we can "break on through to the other side."
Most often we focus on all that the patient must deal with when tragedy strikes. Yet, those of us who care about this person find that with such news, the very nature of our relationship is impacted as well.
A talk with my mother some years ago illustrates how illness changes relationships. I was so touched when she finally asked me how I was doing. For months, we’d been laser-focused on her illnesses. The energy had been going her way; not much coming back around.
I remember first becoming aware of this phenomenon with my dear friend, Trish, at dusk in her living room in Solana Beach, California, the fading backlit light illuminating her. Terminally ill, she also finally asked me how I was. It felt so good to be able to share again as we always had done in the past!
I’m sure it was only because our beloved hospice doctor, Julie, had privately asked me how I was doing. I told her how much I already missed Trish — our deep friendship before her cancer seemed buried. She must’ve dropped a hint. I still cry 18 years later.
It’s no one’s fault. It’s the nature of leave taking — in this case via illness and death. Unbinding and separating from this physical plane demands its own attention. The sick and dying still care; their focus is just elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s a way for us who will remain to begin the adjustment process — while our loved one is still with us. Anticipatory grief.
What can we do during such disruptive and devastating times to help ourselves?
Feel the confusion, the hurt, the sadness, the shock. Plans smashed to smithereens, the future now unimaginable. Get the support you need to dive deeply into the depths of this darkness; denial and distraction, while offering immediate relief, ultimately only lengthen the process. Grief takes as long as it takes.
Care for ourselves while we care for others. This type of news rocks us to our very core, shocks us and bombards our entire system — psychologically, socially, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
As hard as it might be to do, we must find a way to come up for air, again and again. Take that break, delegate to another, be extra mindful when stepping off curbs and while driving . . .
Gratitude in such circumstances — how? We can at least rally to remember to be grateful for the present, right here, right now. For what we are becoming and being called to do, perhaps in ways we could never have conceived of before.
Carlos Castaneda recommends, "When you need an answer, look over your left shoulder and ask your death." BJ Miller, palliative care physician extraordinaire and patient himself, in a three-minute PBS brief, observes, "In a way, it’s harder to accept the death of another person than accept your own, especially when you love that person."
Let’s live our lives alongside anticipatory grief and maximize love, however we can. By feeling our feelings, caring for ourselves and embracing gratitude, we can be of true value.
I miss my friend already.
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