A friend came over to our house on Sunday. He’d been away for several weeks, visiting family overseas. His father has cancer, and it’s not going well. At all. My friend has entered what I think of as “the floating time.” When I was anticipating my father’s death, when it was clearly going to happen, the world and everything in it seemed secondary. Peripheral. I was heavy with feelings, but felt like I was floating (but not in a good way.) Long after I started experiencing it, I found out there’s a name for this: it’s called anticipatory grief.
This is what anticipatory grief looked like on Sunday:
“Welcome back,” I said to my friend.
“I’m not here,” he mumbled.
When I was at work the day after my father’s hospice nurse told us “it’s getting closer”, I definitely wasn’t “there”. I was already feeling a loss that hadn’t happened yet.
If your parent is dying, expect to feel a full range of emotions from sadness to relief to anxiety. Maybe anger, too.
What Hurt During Anticipatory Grief
This is some of what I felt, and what helped me cope with the anticipatory grief that plagued me from the moment my dad was diagnosed:
The day my parents told me that my dad had cancer, I stayed up until 2 in the morning reading about colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in Stage 3 and what I read about his prognosis scared the hell out of me. I basically started imagining my future without my father on that day. It left me feeling more than a little unmoored. I mostly snapped out of it in the four years between his diagnosis and his death, but that “lost” feeling came back when we knew his death was near.
As sad, frustrated, and resentful as I felt while caring for my dad, I also felt honored, comforted, and grateful to help him as his health declined. You don’t learn about ambiguous loss and anticipatory grief when the loss is sudden. When you have a chance to say goodbye through your words and actions, you get a chance to make peace with the process.
As my father’s death approached, I felt guilty for feeling relieved. It had been hard to balance his needs, care for my mom, my family, my job, and friends. Really hard. For years. So yes, I was relieved. (And embarrassingly true to form, I was frustrated at not knowing exactly when it was going to happen.)
But I was also relieved for him. He was bed-bound and increasingly in pain. Earlier that week he’d told me “didn’t know what to do”. He said, “It’s like I can’t stay and I can’t leave.” He wasn’t quite ready…but almost. Like the nurse said, it wasn’t quite time…but almost.
They say these emotions are “heavy” for a reason. There was a weight to all this feeling. What helped me cope depended on what I was feeling that day. Sometimes being with my children was the best relief, sometimes going out with my husband (alone!) was better.
What Helped During Anticipatory Grief
Here are a few things that reliably gave me some relief from the pain of all this anticipatory grief:
I found surprising relief in music. Not because I don’t love music. I do. What surprised me was the kind of music that helped me. Leaving my parents house, distraught or overwhelmed or simply fed up with the endless process of managing someone else’s life on top of my own, nothing helped more than pop music. I let myself give in to the most brain dominating, toe-tappinating songs. The summer before my father died I could sing songs I’d never have listened to before, playing on radio stations I hadn’t known existed. The infatuation hasn’t lasted, but it was great to have a way to shut my brain off for a few minutes here and there.
Something else that calmed my mind was puzzles. They provided just enough distraction to keep me in the moment, moving towards a simple, tangible, achievable goal.
I also spent some time thinking ahead, and it felt good to make plans. I made a list of people to call or email when my father died (not because it was fun, but because it felt good to have it “done.”) It also felt good to ask my brothers to handle the funeral arrangements and make those calls. I did what I could, I asked for help when I needed it. (I’ve made a list of practical preparations you take, if you’re anticipating the death of someone close to you.)
At times, nothing worked. I was sad, tired, and lost. I felt I might stay that way forever. When I felt like this, I cleared my calendar. I made no plans. I did nothing. I waited. Sometimes, I napped. And it helped!
My advice for coping with grief before death? Float it out. Find ways to both feel the pain and get some relief from it. And don’t let anyone tell what that should look like.