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Anticipatory Grief

Group standing in a support circle

Anticipatory Grief

Knowing that someone is going to die can be overwhelming and exhausting. Every moment can feel like the last. The waiting and uncertainty of the last hour is not easy. While anticipatory grief provides an opportunity for some people to have last words, goodbyes, and special moments, disease often prevents those opportunities and sometimes the dying person does not have clarity of mind to speak any special words. Instead, anticipating a death can be very hard to watch and there may be moments when you wish it would all be over already. Those are normal feelings. If you were a care provider, you may feel relieved now that the person has died. That is a normal response and does not mean you loved or cared about the person any less.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Take breaks – Waiting is very hard. Leave the room every hour, plan a day trip, and do what you can to create a schedule that ensures you sleep, eat, and can clear your head. This can be a long road and if you are depleted you won’t be helpful to yourself or others.
  2. Ask for help – You don’t have to go it alone. The help of hospice, friends, and family can allow you to be in your role as wife, husband, partner, child, best friend, etc. If that is not possible, try to find a balance between physical and emotional caretaking.
  3. Monitor your expectations – When we know people are dying, sometimes we expect things from them they cannot or won’t give, which could include apologies, special goodbyes, etc. Disease, fear, and many other things get in the way of meeting your expectations of yourself, the person who is dying, and family. If you have strong expectations, prioritize the important ones so you can work to have them met.
  4. Give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings  – If you are feeling relief it may be because you are exhausted, if you are anxious it could be because you are tired of waiting, if you’re resentful it could be because you want your life back. Emotions are connected to needs. When you have a feeling that makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself what that emotion is trying to tell you. It might be encouraging you to take a break, ask for help, or get more sleep.

Additional Resources

TED Talks - What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death