Recently, my best friend lost her adult son to cancer. Over this past year there have been many ups and downs to the story that ultimately led to his death. In the few weeks prior to his death, I noticed that she was already experiencing grief as she anticipated this devastating loss.
When a lingering illness precedes death, it is not uncommon for the survivors to experience "Anticipatory Grief." As the name suggests, this is the grief that begins in anticipation of a loss. The survivors move into the emotional arena of experiencing the loss. This may change their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. There can be a positive side to this process as the survivors live in the reality that the death is approaching and take the opportunity to resolve interpersonal issues with the dying person. Or, if there are no issues to resolve, the remaining time can be one of reminiscing, sharing emotions, and experiencing closure.
The more negative side of anticipatory grief is that the survivor(s) may start pulling away emotionally from the dying person. They may begin to show emotions that are typically part of post-death grief such as anger, sadness, and withdrawal.
So why do I mention this? What is the take away for the reader? It is important to understand that grief is an individualized experience based on many facets. Some people project their own expectations of what grief should look like onto others and may be critical or impatient to what they see. Remember that grief can be expressed in many ways, at various times and for different lengths of time. We need to be supportive and not judge those who are experiencing it differently than what we think is normal. Be sensitive to the survivor(s) by giving them the time and attention they need that is commensurate to your relationship.
Anticipatory grief is just one type of grief that we may witness. Other types of grief include: complicated grief, disenfranchised grief, differential grief, delayed grief, and concomitant grief (all subjects for future writings). Each with their own set of symptoms or behaviors that are considered normal.
Regarding my friend, her Anticipatory Grief happened in an atmosphere of love. The family was intentional to surround her son with friends and family sharing memories, laughter, and tears as the grief began to surface. It provided a sense of comfort to the family as they got a glimpse of the impact his life had on so many people. It has been a beautiful thing to witness.
I will continue to share this path with her, encouraging her and loving her in whatever way she needs. I will provide a safe place for her to express her pain, listen to her when she needs to talk, and provide my shoulder when she just wants to cry. She counts herself blessed to have been with her son at his birth and to be with him at his death; in that she finds solace.
Let me end with this caveat: if you know someone whose grief is causing unhealthy or destructive behavior or self-harming thoughts, please encourage them to get professional help. They can reach out to medical doctors, psychiatrists, grief counselors, pastors, or support groups any of which can be helpful resources. As personal and individual as grief is, it does not have to be done alone.
Brenda Stutler, LMHC
Certified Grief Counselor