Cherishing the Now: Navigating Anticipatory Grief

Guest Blog by Theresa B. Skaar, Ph.D.

Mortality is a common denominator of being human, and this awareness, even subconsciously, impacts our responses to life experiences. In the 10 years before my grandma died, she had several trips to the hospital with conditions serious enough that I would think that it was ‘the end.’ Each time, I would cry, mentally preparing myself, steeling myself to the idea of her passing. The fear and anguish I experienced was deep and painful. When grandma would get better, albeit a little weaker each time, the relief that we had more time together was palpable.

Years later, I learned that what I experienced was a thing called anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief refers to the grief process experienced by family and friends before the death of a loved one. Anticipating the expected pain of the loss and riding a rollercoaster of emotions. This person is loved so much that the idea that they won’t be physically a part of life is deeply painful. Anticipatory grief can also happen without a catalyst, such as a life-limiting diagnosis or a trip to the hospital. It can happen through loving someone so deeply that the mind goes to the “what-if worries” rather than staying with the joy in the moment.

At the beginning of my anticipatory grief journey, I wrote this journal entry:

“Death is so hard to accept because we are lulled into the expectation of ‘every day’. We go about our lives, expecting to: “see you later”, “see ya Monday” or “I’ll get to that tomorrow…”

We know everyone dies – it’s part of life, right? But we believe that tomorrow will come and when it does, things will be the same – they BETTER be the same or it rocks our world – loss of a job, friend, lover, parent…it catches us off guard, and we mourn the loss.

If we value each moment, hold it up to the light, look at it, love it, hug it – will it hurt less when we ultimately “lose” it? Is there comfort in knowing “while this was a part of me – I appreciated it’? Probably.

It is far too easy to fall into the numb belief in tomorrow, and to forget to live and cherish today.

When I wrote this, I had no idea that life’s winding path would lead me to where I am today. Researching, teaching, and talking to people about grief. Looking back, I can see that the prolonged experience of anticipatory grief has shaped me into someone who deeply values life’s simple moments. I try not to leave anything unsaid – especially telling people how much I love them and all the things that I appreciate about them. Although I had 10 years to say ‘goodbye’ to my grandma, I also know that no day is promised to any of us; we never know when the ‘last time’ is the last time we will see that person or experience that thing.

Grief is a difficult experience, both for the person going through it and those around them. Many people try to avoid discussing it, but caregivers often have to confront it head-on. This can be a daunting task, particularly if they are caring for someone they know personally. The following quote by Rosalynn Carter highlights the universal aspect of caregiving:

“There are only four kinds of people in the world––those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

– Rosalynn Carter

I have experience as a caregiver (I now prefer the term care partner). I have provided care for both personal and professional reasons, and I currently help care for my chosen mom. I know that in the future, I will also need care. I am curious to know which category you fall into today. If you are currently a care partner, you might be experiencing anticipatory grief, just like I did (and am experiencing again). But you might also be experiencing grief due to other factors. In my research, I found that women who provided care to their mothers talked about the grief they experienced because of the role shift from daughter to care partner (Skaar, 2021). In another interview, a couple shared with me their experience of grief related to a disability one of them experienced as a result of a stroke. Their retirement dreams and plans changed drastically, and they mourned the loss of independence as well as the loss of their vision for the future.

The aspects of grief related to providing care are as diverse as the individuals and the dynamics in each relationship. To begin to understand your own experiences of grief, remember the word ACE. This stands for Aware, Curious, and Explore.

awareness

The first step is to become aware of your emotions. You can do this through journaling, sitting quietly and seeing what arises, going for a walk, or moving your body without distractions and simply notice what bubbles up. See if you can observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment, fear, or beating yourself up.

curious

Next, allow yourself to become curious: where do you experience the feeling in your body? If it was a color, what color is it? If it has a size, what size is it? Being curious helps to anchor your attention to the present moment, and it can also provide some space to become aware of your feelings without getting swept away by them.

explore

Lastly, explore the stories you are telling yourself about your emotions and the experience you are having while providing care. You can explore on your own through journaling or by discussing with someone you trust. By examining the stories you tell yourself, you can gain more insight and a better understanding of your situation. This can help you find the perspective you need to be able get the support you need while providing care.

The above steps are not a ‘one-and-done’ process. You might need to check in daily or multiple times a day. An important note as you work with ACE is to be gentle with yourself and offer yourself the same level of kindness you would offer to a dear friend or loved one experiencing what you are right now.

References & Recommended Reading

Caregiver Renewal Institute https://caregiverrenewal.org/

Chodron, P. (2000). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala Publications.

Devine, M. (2017). It’s Ok that You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand. Sounds True.

Divine, M. (2021). How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed: A Journal for Grief. Sounds True.

Halifax, J. (2009). Being with dying: Cultivating compassion and fearlessness in the presence of death. Shambhala Publications.

Kumar, S. M. (2005). Grieving mindfully: A compassionate and spiritual guide to coping with loss. New Harbinger Publications.

Neimeyer, R. A. (Ed.). (2012). Techniques of grief therapy: Creative practices for counseling the bereaved. Routledge.

Ostaseski, F. (2017). The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. Flatiron Books.
Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers https://rosalynncarter.org/

Skaar, T. B. (2021). The Experience of Grief: The Role of Mindfulness, Communication, and Social Support (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nevada, Reno).

Theresa B. Skaar, Ph.D.

Theresa B. Skaar, Ph.D.

Dr. Theresa B. Skaar, known as Dr. T, is an accomplished speaker holding a Ph.D. in Social Psychology and certification in Mind-Body Medicine. With a focus on evidence-based practices, she empowers individuals to navigate life’s challenges effectively.

Specializing in key areas such as grief, death, aging, and mindful living, Theresa delivers captivating talks enriched with interactive sessions. Attendees leave her events armed with practical tools for immediate application in their lives.

Driven by a passion for empowering others, Dr. T is dedicated to helping individuals lead more fulfilling, mindful lives. Through speaking engagements and coaching, she seeks to transform approaches to personal well-being, communication, and emotional health.

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