Anticipatory grief

What Is Anticipatory Grief? “Anticipatory grief is defined as grief that occurs before death (or another great loss) in contrast to grief after death (conventional grief). Rather than death alone, this type of grief includes many losses, such as the loss of a companion, changing roles in the family, fear of financial changes, and the loss of dreams of what could be.”
My friend is experiencing a deep sense of grief. Her husband is living with dementia. Amidst the challenges of COVID and a deepening sense of global angst, this grief is gripping and at times overwhelming. I have seen this often, and mostly it manifests as a withdrawal or disconnect from the person who is expected to die. Many, many people in fact take leave of a loved one long before their death as a result of this anticipated experience of loss. If nothing else, this process of anticipatory grief is as real as is the grief experienced after a person has died.
The sad thing is that this reaction to impending loss means that both the person who is grieving and the person whose death is imminent are losing out on quality time and connection. Let’s just stand still here for a minute. We are all going to die. We are all going to die. I am not for a second diminishing the fact that anticipatory grief is not a debilitating emotional condition.
However – I learn from my friend. In her deep sense of the anticipated loss she is getting closer and closer to her husband. She has forgiven him all the little things that – like in every long partnership – were obstacles on their way. She sleeps with him every night. She holds him, laughs with him, lives with him and loves him more than she has ever done before. She embraces their time together, she is fully focussed on his needs. She honours him as husband and not as “patient”. She props him up, makes sure that he is always immaculately dressed, groomed, that his teeth are flossed and the hair in his ears and nose trimmed. He wears a spectacular pair of spectacles, and an even snazzier pair of sunglasses. He is first and foremost her husband and lover – in spite of the fact that he loves with advanced dementia.
I always say that death teaches us how to live. But it’s too late when someone dies to have the life we should have had with them. That is why I think anticipatory grief is a good thing – IF we are not paralysed by it. So. Think of the people you love. Try and imagine their death. Sit with that, visualise it, feel it deep in your Soul. Sit with it a bit longer. Now get up and embrace the life you have with them. With open arms and an open heart.
When next you hear someone say “she is no longer our Mother” or “we don’t visit her in the old age home because she doesn’t know” – think of this. (S)he is always your Mother/Father/Husband/Wife. Always. Even after their death they will remain that. Death – and our anticipation of it – must be foremost in our minds. It will teach us to be more present, to be more mindful, to appreciate how precious this life is. And it will hopefully bring us closer here and now.
Rayne Stroebel MSc (Dementia Studies)
+27 82 455 5300 Rayne.Stroebel@mindsmatter.co.za www.mindsmatter.co.za

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