Most of us get busy from a young age growing up, going to school, establishing our careers, and having families of our own. What we often don’t pay attention to is how as we get older, so do our parents. We know in the back of our minds they won’t be there, but until that day comes, it’s not something we really consider. That is, until a tragic health diagnosis means, suddenly, you will be watching your parents die. Now you must deal with something that often doesn’t get talked about: Anticipatory Grief.
The Anticipatory Grief That Comes with Watching Your Parents Die
Anticipatory grief is an incredible sadness that is felt when you know you are about to lose someone, but they haven’t actually gone yet. This is the kind of sadness you experience when watching your parents die. While it does allow for the opportunity to say goodbye and savour their last days that a sudden death doesn’t, it isn’t necessarily easier. It also doesn’t shorten the grieving period you experience after that person is gone.
Anticipatory grief is just as unbearable, if not occasionally more stressful, than the conventional grief you will experience after that person is gone. Many people feel guilt during this period because they feel as though they are somehow giving up on that person. As if letting go in any way before that person passes on is somehow abandoning them. On top of that, if you feel any joy or happiness during this time, it is immediately followed by a wave of guilt. After all, how could you feel happy meanwhile your loved one is dying?
Most of us don’t realize that we don’t have to choose between letting go while still loving and appreciating that person while still here. You can also allow yourself to still enjoy your life despite the tragedy that is simultaneously unfolding.
How To Handle Anticipatory Grief
People jump to support people and offer condolences after someone has passed. Before that, though, watching your parents die (or another loved one) can feel very isolating. You’re expected to still function, go to work, and attend events with a smile on your face as if it doesn’t feel as though your world is crumbling apart. If you are experiencing anticipatory grief, use some of these tips as guidance to navigate this emotionally exhausting time.
1. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and grief
Trying to ignore how you are feeling will not help you here. Instead, just as you would with conventional grief, work through the four stages of grief as best you can: Acceptance, working through the pain, letting go, and finally reconnecting with your loved one in a different place.
2. Express your pain and seek help
Many people feel as though they need to be “strong” during this time. Either for the loved one who is dying, for their children, or so as not to burden other people with their immense sadness. This will only isolate you further. Express and talk about your grief to a loved one or close confidant. If you need to, seek the help of a therapist. One thing here is certain: You do not have to hide your pain or pretend like everything is okay when it is not.
3. Spend time with that person
It can be hard to spend time with a loved one who is dying. You don’t want to remember how they are now, right before death. You want to remember the person you’ve always known and loved. You also may feel awkward because you don’t know what to say. Perhaps you’re afraid to break down in front of them and make them feel somehow guilty for dying.
Not spending time with them, however, will only make this time harder. It will also likely make you feel regretful for not spending time with them after they are gone. This time is precious and important for both of you. Use this time to learn more about them and their life. Take videos and photos to have memories. Read to them or get them to tell you stories. Find an activity that is meaningful for both of you and do that. Remember that tears are okay – they’d rather see you crying than not at all.
4. Give opportunity for children to express themselves
If you have children of your own while watching your parents die, remember that they, too, are losing a loved one. Not only might they have problems understanding and processing what is happening, but they are also often not given as much opportunity to express their feelings. Have an open dialogue with your children about their pain as well as yours. If you think it’s necessary, get them counselling, as well. There are many books available, as well, that teach children how to cope with death and grief
Even if you aren’t much of a writer, journaling – aka writing down how you feel – can be very cathartic. It might be awkward at first, but you will quickly get the hang of it. If you don’t know where to start, simply write down what you have done or are doing that day and try to connect with how those activities are making you feel. Once the emotions start coming out, just keep writing and don’t stop until you think you don’t have anything left to say.
6. Maintain your sense of humour
Laughing or cracking jokes during this time might seem wrong or make you feel guilty. Studies show, however, that humour in tense times such as this is extraordinarily beneficial for all parties involved. Sharing with that person funny jokes or memes, even jokes about (depending on the time and the person) can help both them and you. Just because someone is dying doesn’t mean you both can’t still find moments of joy together.
What To Do After Your Parents Are Gone
No matter how much time you spend preparing for their death and dealing with your anticipatory grief, it won’t change the grief you experience after they’re gone. Watching a parent die is agonizing, and this was someone who was there for you your entire life. Their death will feel like a giant hole was ripped into your universe as if one of your anchors got torn away in the current. No matter how old you are, losing a parent is extremely difficult.
The first thing to remember is that everyone processes grief in a different way and on their own timeline. So, what might work for your siblings might not work for you. You also can’t judge (or allow yourself to feel judged) for how you process your loss and how long this process takes.
Firstly, the stages of grief here are the same as those you went through during the anticipatory phase: Allowing yourself to feel the grief, accepting it, moving forward, and finally being able to enjoy that person’s memory without it causing you pain.
Consider Grief Counselling
You can use many tools to help you cope with the loss of a parent or loved one, and grief counselling is one of the most beneficial. It helps you process the complex emotions and fears that death brings about and learn to move forward and live a happy life. It is also beneficial for those around you, as it can help you continue to be an effective parent, friend, spouse, or co-worker despite what you have gone through.
Take Care of Yourself and Do What Feels Right for You
While you are processing your grief, people will give you plenty of advice and tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. Ultimately, it is up to you. First of all, take care of your own well-being. Do your best to get proper sleep. Eat well and balanced. Get outside and do some physical activity. Avoid turning to things like alcohol. If you feel like going out and socializing with friends will help you, do it. If you’re not ready, don’t. You may go out, then feel overwhelmed. Permit yourself to leave early if you’re not feeling it.
Some people find going to work every day a helpful distraction. Others can’t cope. Allow yourself to take a pause from work and any other obligations to take the time you need to be in a better headspace. You will be a more effective worker if you take the time you need to heal a bit first.
Do Something in Their Memory
This doesn’t have to be a big organized event – it can be something with just you and your family, or even just you. Go to their favourite place and journal. Take your children to the same fishing lake you used to go to with your late mother or father. Make dinner with some of their old recipes. Go on a trip with the whole family. Big or small, it will help you feel connected to them even after they are gone.
Whether it’s with your friends who were practically your parent’s second set of kids, funny or heartfelt moments with your siblings, or telling your kids stories about their grandparents – all of these will help you by keeping that person’s memory alive. They may be gone in body, but their spirit and their legacy live on through you and their other friends and family.
Accept Help and Comfort
Now is not the time to push others away. Accept the frozen casseroles, hugs, and well-meant words of advice. Allow people to comfort you and sit with you in your sadness. Finally, let them help to pull you out of it. Laugh with them, even if at first you have to force it. They are there only because they want to see you smile again, even if only briefly.
Losing a parent is something most of us will experience but none of us are prepared for. It will be a challenging time in your life no matter how well you handle grief. Know that you are not alone, accept the help for your friends and family, and don’t be afraid to go out and continue living your life. For you to have a happy life is all your parents ever wanted for you, even after they are gone.
Jim Villamor is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia. His writing covers issues relating to social justice, grief and loss, relationships, trauma and family dynamics associated with active addition and health. You can reach out to him by emailing email@example.com