Here’s how to cope with anticipatory grief.
by Jay Deitcher
“It’s like you don’t want your grandkids to know you,” I said to my dad through the phone, my voice cracking. “It’s like you want to die.”
It was early in the pandemic, May 2020. My mom and dad were a pair of snowbirds, two months overdue to fly home from Florida to Upstate New York. At the time, there were no vaccines, no N95s, nothing but flimsy masks and social distancing — and hospitals piling up with dead bodies.
My parents had kept pushing off their return to New York, reluctant to bottle themselves in an airplane with the disease. But the Florida heat was rising, and after a couple months of boiling away inside their Bonita Springs abode, they decided to chance it. They were getting on that plane. And I was annoying them.
“We hear your concerns,” my dad assured me, and took a break from picking up my calls.
My dad is 84; my mom is 76. A decade ago, my dad was hiking; now he walks with a hunch and snails across the living room because his back throbs. They are going to die. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but eventually.
They seem okay with this. Their affairs are in order, their wills are ready to go, and they know the family won’t struggle financially without them.
But while they may have accepted the situation, I had not. I had never worried much about their aging before, but once the pandemic hit, death was in my face. I couldn’t stop catastrophizing. Even though my parents escaped the plane ride alive, they continue to roll the dice daily, roaming the halls of their retirement community maskless, eating in the dining hall and driving me crazy.
I am dealing with anticipatory grief, a natural form of grieving that occurs before a loss. It can precede the loss of a job, a house, a marriage, a dream, but it often occurs when a loved one is stolen by aging or disease. Even before the person dies, anticipatory grief can cause you to mourn the person they were, the change in your family structure, the milestones — births, bar mitzvahs and weddings — that your loved one will never witness.
You can’t help others if you are drowning in anticipatory grief, so, “You have to put your own [oxygen] mask on first,” said Mekel Harris, a licensed psychologist and the author of “Relaxing into the Pain: My Journey into Grief & Beyond.” “Anticipating a loss of a family member is exhausting mentally, physically, and spiritually. If you’re exhausted, it makes it difficult to be present for the moments that you do have with your loved one.”
You figuratively put on your mask by making sure your basic needs are met. Are you sleeping well? Eating well? Hydrating? Are you caring for your own physical and emotional health? Have you reached out for help? “We’re all in a situation we’ve never been in before,” Harris said. “It’s okay to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m struggling and need help.’ … You’ll be met with a lot of ‘me toos,’ because we are all walking through loss on some level.”
Harris recommends researching grief support groups, which you can find by reaching out to organizations like GriefShare or contacting community agencies, churches, temples, mosques and Chambers of Commerce. There are online support groups for every type of grief including anticipatory.
Soffer said groups and communities, like the Modern Loss one she established, allow members to surround themselves with people who are flooded with similar feelings to “lift each other up and pull each other through the muck.” She also finds it important to seek support from a mental health professional who can act as “an unbiased sounding board when you’re living in this whole space of impotence.”
To cope with the catastrophizing, Soffer recommends implementing mindfulness strategies to ground yourself in the present. One example is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique, with which you recognize five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell and one you can taste. But no coping strategy is perfect for everyone, Soffer said; it’s about finding out what works for you. “Do you need to call a friend? Do you need to bake something? Do you need to speak to your therapist or go to a hill and primal scream?”
It’s important that family and friends don’t minimize the feelings of someone who is grieving in this way, said Alua Arthur, a death doula and founder of Going with Grace, a death doula training and end-of-life planning and support organization. Avoid offering platitudes such as “but they’re here now” or “you can worry about that later.” Instead, validate their experience, and then work on “creating moments” to keep your friend or family member in the here and now, Arthur said, such as “going for a walk, getting a foot rub, going for a hike, sitting at a restaurant with food that they really enjoy.” Pick an activity that involves the senses, Arthur added, because the senses “know the past, but they cannot anticipate the future.”
Elderly parents should strive to be empathetic to what their grown children are going through, too, Harris said: “Regardless of our age, we all crave safety and security and support.” Remind your children that you are “safe today” and allow them to express their feelings openly.
If a person has suffered past losses, anticipatory grief can be amplified. Corinne Herrmann, 31, grew up in the Baháʼí faith, believing that death brings everlasting life and draws the soul closer to God — it is a transition to be celebrated. Still, she found herself bawling through movies about older characters losing mental and physical capacity. It isn’t her parents’ death she fears — it’s what might lead up to it, because she’s seen it before.
During Herrmann’s early 20s, she lived with and cared for her “sassy grandma,” who stayed active, reading and teaching classes in genealogy well into her elder years, until dementia stole her mind. Her grandmother died three years ago at the age of 96, and now Herrmann worries, “This is going to happen to my parents. I’m going to go through this again.”
“The moment that someone meaningful to you dies, you kind of enter into this new stage of waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Soffer, adding that a lot of Americans may be in this stage, having recently experienced the death of a loved one because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Herrmann took notice of her grief — and took action. When her job teaching mathematics went virtual after the pandemic hit, she jumped at the opportunity to move back home to Kansas to spend time with her parents. She tries to tamp down her anxiety and accept their decisions: “I have to respect that even though I’m afraid of them getting older, they’re actually the ones who are getting older.” And for support, she turns to fellow members of the Baháʼí community. They pray together and share worries and resources. “You don’t feel like you have to carry that burden yourself,” she said.
As terrifying as anticipatory grief is, it can help us grasp for the moments we have with our loved ones, as Herrmann has. “Seek out ways to be present, spending that quality time while we’re all still here,” Harris said.
I am trying to handle my anxiety in a positive way. I no longer attempt to guilt my parents into cloistering away until an undetermined time when the pandemic finally passes. I bring my children to visit them numerous times per week, and when covid statistics spike, we put visits on pause and Skype frequently. We light Shabbat candles together weekly, teaching my children traditions that have lived in my family for generations so they can carry them into the future.
“I think that when you get to a point of acceptance, it’s the thing that enables you to experience post-traumatic growth,” Soffer said. “I think that it’s almost like a superpower, being able to live with an enormous amount of uncertainty.”
The other day, my dad told me that he is troubled that I am so concerned about his risk of being infected with the coronavirus, but he doesn’t worry about dying. While he and my mom make educated decisions to avoid the virus, he said, he’s more nervous about his kids and grandkids catching the disease than himself. “Passing’s inevitable. I’m thankful that I’m able to age.”
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