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Anticipatory grief is the “beginning of the end” in our minds. We now operate in two worlds; the safe world that we are used to and the unsafe world where a loved one might die. We feel that sadness and the unconscious need to prepare our psyche.
Anticipatory grief is generally more silent than grief after a loss. We are often not as verbal. It’s a grief we keep to ourselves. We want little active intervention. There is little or no needs for words, it is much more of a feeling that can be comforted by the touch of a hand or a silently sitting together. Most of the time in grief we are focused on the loss in the past, but in anticipatory grief we occupy ourselves with the loss ahead.
When a loved one has to undergo preparatory grief in order to prepare for the final separation from this world, we have to go through it too. We may not realize it at the time. It may be a strange feeling in the pit of the stomach or an ache in the heart before the loved one dies. We think of the five stages of death occurring for the dying person, but many times loved ones go through them ahead of the death also. This is especially true in long drawn out illnesses. Even if you go through any or all of the five stages ahead of the death, you will still go through them again after the loss. Anticipatory grief has its own process; it takes its own time.
Forewarned is not always forearmed. Experiencing anticipatory grief may or may not make the grieving process easier or shorten it. It may bring only feelings of guilt that we were grieving before the loss actually occurred. We may experience all fives stages of loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) before the actual death. We may experience only anger and denial. Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief and if they do, certainly not in the same way.
Grief is the internal part of loss, how we feel. The internal work of grief is a process, a journey. It does not end on a certain day or date. It is as individual as each of us. Grief is real because loss is real. Each grief has its own imprint, as distinctive and as unique as the person we lost. The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking, because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost.
We think we want to avoid the grief, but really it is the pain of the loss we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain.
Mourning is the external part of loss. It is the actions we take, the rituals and the customs. Grief is the internal part of loss, how we feel. The internal work of grief is a process, a journey.
Grief is not just a series of events, or stages or timelines. Our Society places enormous pressure on us to get over loss, to get through the grief. But how long do you grieve for a husband of fifty years? A teenager killed in a car accident? A four-year-old child? A year? Five years? Forever? The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime.
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.The stages have evolved since their introduction and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.
These feelings are important; they are the psyche’s protective mechanisms. Letting in all the feelings associated with loss at once would be overwhelming emotionally. We can’t believe what has happened because we actually can’t believe what has happened. To fully believe at this stage would be too much.
Denial in grief has been misinterpreted over the years. When the stage of denial was first introduced in “On Death and Dying,” it focused on the person who was dying. In this book, “On Grief and Grieving,” the person who may be in denial is grieving the loss of a loved one. For a person who is dying, denial may look like disbelief. They may be going about life and actually denying that a terminal illness exists. For a person who has lost a loved one, however, the denial is more symbolic than literal. This does not mean that you literally don’t know your loved one has died. It means you come home and you can’t believe that your wife isn’t going to walk in the door at any minute or that your husband is just away on a business trip. You simply can’t fathom that he will never walk through that door again.
Yes, if children are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve. Many times in our society children are the forgotten grievers. For instance, when a parent dies, whom do we expect to help the child with their grief? The surviving parent. That parent not only has their own grief to deal with but they are learning for the first time how to be a single parent. They, like their child, can use support in their grieving. Children don’t grieve the way we do. They don’t openly talk about how they are feeling. A death in their life usually causes them to feel even more different than usual. Kids feel different enough – a death causes them to feel even more different and isolated. Bereavement groups are extremely helpful for children since they are with other children who have experienced a loss also.
Grief is the healing process that helps us deal with the loss of a loved-one. Grief does not have a clear beginning or clear end to it. Rather, it is a reflection of feelings surrounding the loss. Grief will ebb and flow throughout our life after a loss. We don’t get over the loss of someone, but we learn to live with that loss. We also will eventually remember and honor our loved one without feeling pain. We will grieve as long as we need to.
One of the mistakes we make is asking people in deep grief how we can help them. They are often too lost in their own sorrow to identify needs. It’s OK to ask; but just know you can step in and help. For instance, if it’s after the funeral at a reception and the trash needs to be taken out – don’t ask, just help. In the old days we would gather around the loved one and just do things for them. Bring over some food so that they don’t have to cook but can still eat well. You probably know their life – offer to pick up the kids, help them with their yard, offer to take them on errands.
Bereavement support groups are very helpful. Many times when you are in the middle of your grief, you may feel that the world has moved on. Support groups provide you with a safe place to talk about your loss and experience your feelings with others who are also experiencing similar feelings. You can find a local bereavement group that is facilitated by your local hospital, hospice, counseling center and/or place of worship.
Many times when a well-known person dies, we collectively feel it as a society. You may have not known them personally; however, you may have grown up with them as your President or saw their face every week on TV, or just experienced them as always being part of your world. And when your world experiences a loss you experience a loss. Sometimes people are surprised at the sadness because of the intensity of the sadness they feel. It becomes multiplied when all those around you are feeling sad as well. Even if you didn’t know the person, honor that grief. Take time to watch their funeral on TV. Talk to friends and family about them. Light a candle in their honor. You may have not known them; but the loss can still feel personal to you.
Many people feel that children should not be allowed at funerals, either because the children will be upset or they’ll be distracting. When deciding whether or not your child should attend, treat a funeral just as you would a wedding, graduation or any other formal event. If you’re going to be busy at the ceremony and can’t attend to your child, then have someone else you and your child trust mind him or her. I’ve found, however, that children generally behave quite well at funerals if they’re given three things: Prior preparation. Tell them what’s going to happen, where they’ll be sitting, for how long, and that people may be crying. If the child wants to go, he should be allowed to. If the child says he doesn’t want to go, his choice should be honored. If he’s old enough to understand, explain that this will be a good chance to say good-bye to the deceased. Support. Make sure the child has someone to comfort her if she is upset or grieving. If you’re going to be busy during the funeral, or if you’re grieving too much to help your child, find someone who can help. Follow-up after the funeral. Talk about what has happened, what it meant and what they thought of it. Help your children put the loss and the ceremony in proper perspective.