During our last counseling session, this was the phrase that was used to describe our current state of grieving. Anticipatory grieving refers to the grief process that a person undergoes before the loss actually occurs. Terminally ill individuals and their loved ones will experience this form of grieving, whether they are conscious of it or not, from the very moment they learn of their life-threatening illness. Some studies have shown that anticipatory grief impacts post-death bereavement, easing the intensity of the grieving process after loss (compared to unexpected or sudden losses, which lead to more severe bereavement reactions) but other studies have shown that anticipatory grieving may just extend the mourning process and lead to feelings of isolation.
We all experience some form of anticipatory grief, as soon as we become aware of the inevitability of our own death and the death of our loved ones. We are not invincible, and regardless of factors beyond our control (i.e. genetics) and within (i.e. diet and exercise) not one of us is guaranteed a long life, a healthy life or an easy life. Perhaps Mark and I are fortunate because we now better understand the limitations of life and the reality of death.
Having experienced an unexpected loss with the sudden death of my father as a child, I’m not convinced that one form of grief is preferred over another. I only know with certainty that love and grief are intertwined in life and the stronger your love for someone the more powerful your grief for them. The shock of coming home from school one day and realizing that my father’s chair would forever sit empty was not easily overcome. It didn’t feel real; for weeks following his death I waited for him to walk in the door smiling after a long day of work. I’m still constantly grieving his absence; some days are just tougher than others.
We will have to say goodbye to our sweet boy long before we should. I have grieved for Theodore, our healthy son, for five months now and I will continue to grieve for him until I breathe my last breath. Grieving processes are personal and I know that although Mark and I have faced every step of this journey together, we grieve differently and will continue to process our loss individually. I also can’t anticipate how I’ll actually respond to losing Theo when that day comes. What will I do when I look into your empty crib? How will I answer the unavoidable question: how many children do you have? Will the quietness and emptiness following your absence ever dissipate? Will my arms always feel empty? Will people remember you for your strength and spirit and not as my dying baby?
At times, these haunting questions, the exhaustion of being a caregiver, the fear of the inevitable and the anxiety and sadness of watching Theo suffer overwhelm me. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in ‘On Death and Dying’ describes the five (non consecutive) stages of grief as: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Perhaps knowing that Theo’s life is shortened has allowed Mark and I to navigate easier through the denial and bargaining stages but I often wonder if anticipatory grief, although productive from a psychological sense, is simply a prolonged and more painful grieving process.
Grief can wash over you at predictable times (like during father daughter dances at weddings) and unpredictable and unwelcome times too. The triggers are also unique. The sight of thick wool socks remind me of my dad in the winter and I have an aversion to the fragrant aroma of the Stargazer lily – when I smell them, I am nine years old again, surrounded by flower arrangements, staring at my father’s coffin. The triggers for Theo are already present and abundant: we’ve tucked away all of his toys, his favourite sippy cup, little running shoes and all of his pants (he can no longer wear these due to his progressive wounds) because these items are painful reminders of when he was healthy. And, whenever I see pictures or videos of smiling, active toddlers Theo’s age, our loss always feels emphasized.
Grief is a complex, powerful emotion and I have no choice but to face it (now and for the rest of my life) but I grieve because I love powerfully and passionately and I wouldn’t live my life any other way.