Anticipatory Grief – never heard of it! What a strange combination of words! Who wants to anticipate grief?
These are some of the thoughts the words evoke and yet, believe it or not, people do experience anticipatory grief, and in some, though by no means all cases, this does lessen the post death grief which is felt.
Grief is normally associated with death, but whenever a loss occurs, similar emotions surface. This loss may be an object, a limb, an organ, the birth of a handicapped baby, the loss of a normal expected life-style due to an accident, the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease such as cancer, the diagnosis of HIV infection, the loss of independence suffered after a stroke, or by an elderly person moving into residential care.
One lesson in life is that loss is not only losing something that we had. Loss is also failure to receive something that everyone takes for granted, or something that we badly wanted, expected or felt entitled to. This can be just as painful.
When a handicapped child is born, the parents are grieving the hopes they had of a perfect baby and the plans for his or her future – the question is “Why us?”. They worry about their ability to love and care for this child, and what the future holds for him or her when they can no longer care for their child.
Witnessing the slow deterioration of a child or young adult with a potentially terminal illness can be devastating – in a strange way, we expect to bury our parents but not our children.
In the case of any untimely death, there is the loss of hopes and expectations.
Some of the emotions which are felt at times are numbness, disbelief, denial, frustration, anger, inadequacy, fear and guilt.
In the case of terminal illness, the dying person also has their need to grieve – both for the loss of their life and for the loved ones they are leaving behind. For the relatives, this period can also assist in the post death grief, in that there is the chance to say “Goodbye” and complete any unfinished business.
In the case of long term debilitating illness i.e. Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Motor Neuron Disease, Huntington’s Chorea, HIV Positive/Aids, Heart Disease or Stroke, both the patient and the carers are experiencing progressive loss on an ongoing basis in a situation which will only become worse. Here the frustration is coming from both sides: from the patients – in expressing their needs, and from the carers – in understanding and then carrying out the most basic needs of a disabled person. It is heartbreaking to witness a parent or sibling become childlike and need dressing, feeding and changing. A lot of anger can be felt at the lack of support and the sheer exhaustion of caring on a twenty-four hour basis.
The ‘about-to-be’ bereaved may be so caught up with the practicalities of caring that they cannot give time to their own ‘anticipatory’ grief. Sometimes families feel it is a betrayal to prepare and acknowledge that the death will occur. At this time those who will be left behind should recognize their needs and care for themselves. Some people may have friends and family to help them but remember the Bereavement Counselling Service is also there to listen and provide support as you struggle with the grief and future prospects.