When Grief Doesn’t Wait: My Experience of Anticipatory Grief

candle representing grief on windowsill

We’re all familiar with the ‘5 stages of grief’ model, but what actually is ‘grief’? Is it an emotion? An action? A thought?

When does grief end?

When does grief start?

The answer to the latter may seem obvious, but it might not always be as clear as it appears.

Anticipatory grief is a type of grief that begins before a person dies. According to Verywell health, anticipatory grief often involves emotions like anxiety, loneliness, guilt and anger. Personally, I don’t find broad descriptions like this helpful – after all, things like ‘loneliness’ and ‘anger’ are very personal experiences, and vary widely for everyone.

There are a whole array of situations in which anticipatory grief might occur, one of the most common being when someone you love has a terminal illness.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t already know, I lost my Dad to cancer back in August 2017. For me, anticipatory grief was 100% a thing. In the months leading up to my Dad’s death, my mind became pretty chaotic. Overall, I coped ok. We didn’t have much choice but to power through and stay positive, so dealing with the whole situation seemed to weirdly come quite naturally.

But there were moments that looking back now I realise were all part of the complicated web of grief. I had intense mood swings; one minute I’d be fine and the next I’d be sobbing in my car. It would happen like the flick of a switch.

There were a few occasions where I got into some incredibly drunken states, and unfortunately, when I was drunk the emotions I had skilfully packed away throughout the day often came spilling out with extreme force, demanding attention.

I clung to certain people as lifelines, but withdrew from my friends. And I was angry. Really angry. This was the enduring emotion that continued for me until well after Dad’s death. I was angry that anybody else in my life could possibly be thinking about anything else. I was angry at strangers, I was angry at people who moaned about ‘stupid things’, and I was angry at my friends. Looking back I realise most of that anger was unwarranted, but at the time I just couldn’t fathom how anyone anywhere could think about anything other than this horrible situation.

And then there were the more complicated, troubling thoughts. I would think about what it was going to be like when he did die and what the funeral might be like. These thoughts tormented me; I felt incredibly guilty for thinking them when he was still with us. I’ve since realised that they are actually completely normal, common thoughts to have, and just one of the mind’s weird ways of preparing itself.

Many of the more complicated aspects of grief came for me before my Dad’s death actually happened. Afterwards, I was more peaceful. It seems really strange, I know. But the uncertainty and dread was gone. To my horror at the time, there was a sense of relief. I couldn’t admit this for a ages, but I realise now that it’s a totally normal reaction.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that grief will never be clear-cut. Grief is complicated, messy and completely individual. Everyone goes through it in a different way, and no one grieving process is superior or ‘ideal’. The important thing is that you work through it in whatever way helps and is healthy for you. Never let anyone tell you you’re grieving ‘wrong’, or that your thoughts and feelings are not valid.

Grieving is not always obvious. Media portrayals of grief are not accurate or helpful; it is not always an overt display of sadness that lasts for a while and then stops. Often it disguises itself and manifests in different ways and over many years. It never completely ends, and this is ok. Grief can start way before death, and sometimes it might seem to be gone and then creep back, triggered by something you didn’t even realise was connected (more on this in my “Dealing With Grief one Granola pot at a Time” post).

If you’re dealing with grief, please take comfort in the fact that whatever you’re feeling and however you’re coping is ok. And if you have been through or are currently going through anticipatory grief, don’t feel guilty for having those thoughts. Your mind has it’s own methods of coping, and nobody is allowed to tell you that they are wrong or not normal. Anticipatory grief is perfectly normal, and it can even be helpful in dealing with the aftermath of losing someone. I feel I was definitely stronger after Dad’s death having already done a lot of grieving beforehand.

Grief is fluid, strange and above all, not a universal experience. Take comfort in that fact, and allow yourself to work through it in your own way and at your own pace.

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