Preparing for the Death of a Loved One - Dealing With Anticipatory Grief
Death is a thief that comes in the night to steal our loved ones away. It cares not who is victim, nor the time of day. It cares not who is left behind, nor who must pay the bill, it cares not how the price is paid, nor how many pews to fill.*
Death is as much a part of life as birth. It is the way in which we exit this world. Our bodies lie down in the dust, and our spirits continue back to their Creator. Knowing that death is imminent does not make it any easier to deal with. As our loved ones enter the final stages of their existence and we know that death is near, we often anticipate the event.
This is not a problem when our feelings and actions lead us to prepare with final arrangements and family issues. It is problematic, however, when our feelings get in the way of these preparations. This can be termed anticipatory grief, or grieving in anticipation of the death of our loved one.
Warning signs that anticipatory grief is occurring and may be problematic are as follows:
- Cutting off relationships before they are terminated by death
- Impatience with our loved ones as they talk about the inevitable
- Turning a cold shoulder to keep ourselves from feeling the pain of loss
- Dropping subtle hints that the loved one is punishing others by leaving
- Withholding physical assistance as ability to function fades
- Harboring grudges that need to be healed through the gift of forgiveness
As we understand what causes anticipatory grief, we can work through it, and make the last days of our loved one's lives sweet for them, as well as for ourselves.
Death is a warning that life is short, and fragile to one and all. It’s voice one does not ever expect, yet to many it daily does call. It can come when one is having fun, or with ones he does not know. It can come when one has not lived long, or has been waiting and ready to go.
Anticipating the Lonliness
Knowing that we are experiencing the final days of a loved one's life gives rise to a number of thoughts and feelings. We think about the wonderful times we had together and the challenges we overcame. We may shed tears during these remembrances, and that is okay. The emotions are strong, and tears simply mean that we are allowing ourselves to remember and feel joy and happiness in a moment when sadness may prevail.
The prospect of being alone after our loved one's death is like the figurative "elephant in the living room." It is there, but we do not need to address it at this time. Doing so is disrespectful to our loved one and implies that our needs are more important than theirs at a moment when they are close to the other side. The sacred nature of death demands our full attention. Focus needs to be on the person dying and their preparation to meet their Maker. There will be plenty of time after they are gone to acknowledge and take care of the elephant!
Focusing on ourselves during our loved one's death also robs us of much needed transition time. They are still here! To take the focus off of them at this critical moment is to leave ourselves without a precious memory that we will be able to hold dear in the coming months and years. In essence, we are leaving ourselves without peace of mind and comfort when it is most critically needed.
Death is a shock of reality, the opposite of birth. It ends the life that we all know as our time here on the earth. It makes us ask the questions, that we all want to know. Did I live before this life, and after it where do I go?
Anticipating the Pain
The pain of separation from a loved one is strong. We feel it when we are homesick if we have been away from our loved ones for a long time. When death is imminent, and we know that we will be separated, the anticipation of the pain makes us shrink from the task of supporting our loved one during their dying process.
We may withdraw into ourselves, not wanting to cry in their presence, or we may develop physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches, or even other body aches that make us physically ill to the point that we stay away. These symptoms are the result of nervous constricting of our blood flow, and the body crying out for nutrients.
To keep ourselves from anticipating the pain of loss, it is best to keep our mind focused on the present moment when we are with our loved one. Focus on the love for that person and on positive memories. We can hold their hand, sit by them, read to them, sing a simple song, or pray with them. Helping them to feel peace and comfort brings peace into our own souls.
When we focus on gratitude, we are able to avoid feelings of anger, frustration, and bitterness at the suffering our loved one may be called upon to endure. Expressing gratitude for those providing services, whether volunteer or paid, also gives us something positive to think about during moments of difficulty.
Once the loved one is gone, there will be plenty of time for expressing and working through negative emotions. Doing so now only damages the memories of the departing loved one, and makes us feel guilty for letting our own issues get in the way of spending quality time with them while they are here.
The goal is to savor every moment of the remaining time our loved one has in this life. As we do so, we are able to walk away after their death with no regrets. Spiritual sensitivity helps us accomplish this goal. God is aware of the needs of our dying loved one, and of ways we can use our talents and abilities to help them.
Death is a door all must pass through from this life to the next. The body cannot enter there, it must be laid to rest. The spirit is eternal, and was before we came. But now that we have lived our life, it will never be the same.
Are you currently experiencing the death of a loved one?
Anticipating the Sadness
Sadness is the result of focusing our thoughts on what we are about to lose, or have lost. As children, we felt a great deal of sadness when we lost a favorite toy, blanket, or stuffed animal. Our thoughts were dwelling on the cold emptiness we felt in contrast to the warm, happy feelings that came when we were cuddled with the blanket or stuffed animal, and were playing happily with the favorite toy.
When a loved one is getting ready to leave this world, our sadness often comes from thinking about the cold emptiness we will feel when we experience the loss. As we anticipate these feelings, we are filled with a sense of inadequacy and vulnerability. Following death, we know that we will have to transition and change our view of life as we adjust to being without our loved one. We know that we will miss them, and feel sad that they are no longer with us.
Anticipatory grief comes when we try to make the transition happen before the death, or when we try to visualize where and who we will be after our loved one is gone. Allowing these types of thoughts to occupy our minds leaves us with little sensitivity to what is happening to our loved one and we tend to brush off or ignore their poignant feelings.
Thinking too far ahead also hardens our hearts to the desire to help and be with our loved one while they are suffering. We may make comments or say hurtful things, trying to make them not share their suffering with us. Tears of bitterness will be shed by the dying one if we allow this to happen. Our bitter tears will come when, after the death, we realize what we did to them, and to ourselves.
To keep us from being overcome with sadness and grief during our loved one's dying process, it is necessary to keep our focus in the present. When thoughts about the future, such as worries, fears, or feelings of sadness come, we can write them down in a notebook or journal. As we keep them private, we are able to keep them from affecting our actions. Later, when our perspective is different, we can bring them out and continue with our grieving process.
Death is the gate that leads us back into the presence of God. His Son reviews our life with us, did we His pathways trod? Did we forgive and then forget, and live His very ways? Did we help one another, and rejoice in all our days?
Anticipating the Conflict
The dying process usually brings out conflict within the family. Some may feel that certain actions are best for the person preparing to die, and others feel that something more should be done to preserve life. Family members may have anger and bitterness toward one another or the dying person because of incidents that happened previously.
When we anticipate the conflict, our actions toward loved ones who gather to pay their last respects may be hurtful without us even realizing it. Setting these feelings aside is difficult, but we must do so out of respect for our family members, our dying loved one, and ourselves. It may be necessary to go somewhere alone to work through these feelings.
As we turn our hearts to God, voicing our desire to forgive past offenses, we are able to see through different eyes, and feel the healing affect of grace, then have peace in our souls. We are in a better position to return to our family's side and feel the sense of camaraderie, joy, and happiness that are only available in sacred family times. We are able to keep our focus on the present moment, rejoicing in the life that our loved one has lived.
When family members or others step forward who may have been antagonistic previously, we need to grant forgiveness and let go of grudges. Death is indeed a crisis, and in order for us to navigate it successfully as a family, we need to provide comfort and strength to one another.
Conflict can be resolved by focusing first on the wishes of the person who is in the process of dying, and second on seeing that they are safe in their daily environment. Should there come a time when the safety of the dying person is in question, either because they cannot perform the daily tasks needed for their own survival, or because they have a risk of falling or hurting themselves, it is necessary to make arrangements for additional care.
Death leads to the judgment and our eternal home. Christ will be our advocate, from Him we’ll no longer roam. He will give to us the glory that we gave to Him. He can lead us only as far as we give up our sin.
Let Anticipation Give Way to Growth
Turning to God in our grief and suffering when we are anticipating the death of our loved one brings understanding, peace of mind, and the ability to see things from an eternal perspective. Growth and development result as we change our thought patterns, look for the good, and increase our commitment to our family and their health and well-being.
We search our own souls in an effort to work through the difficult feelings we are experiencing. Perhaps we seek our own forgiveness, as much as seeking to forgive others. We may even ask the dying person for their forgiveness if we feel that we have wronged them in some way. Ironically, they will most likely be asking for our forgiveness.
The tears we shed will water our own tender feelings of closeness with our Savior, as we realize that it is only through His atoning sacrifice that forgiveness is even possible. The pain and suffering we experience will also bring us closer to the cross, the nails that were driven, the crown of thorns, and the spear that pierced His side.
The time we spend on our knees will give us a glimpse into the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ asked for the cup to be taken away. We may be asking for something similar, in hopes that in some small way, we can stop death from occurring. Our heart will be softened by the feelings of love we have for the Creator of all things, who died that we might live.
Death is how He paid the price, in the garden His blood was spilt. He suffered and He died for all, to free our souls from guilt. Repentance paves the pathway, it shows to Him our love, it enables us to then be free and live in His home above.
Find Joy in the Journey
The death of a close loved one gives a very different perspective on life. We realize that at any moment, we could be in their shoes, breathing our last and saying good-bye to those we hold dear.
The daily choices we make become more meaningful as we realize that the time we have left on this earth is short. We may even yearn for those who have gone before us in such a way that we want to seek out who they were, and how the things they experienced impact our present circumstances.
The dying process, no matter how short or long, is a time of deep personal reflection. It gives us reason to look deep within ourselves, to evaluate our actions, our relationships, and the things that are important to us. As we focus on the present moment and look to God for assistance with our feelings, we find peace through faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ. The final moments we spend together with our loved one are sweet indeed.
*Poetry by Denise W. Anderson
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Denise W Anderson