What Anticipatory Grief Is Not

The Blog That Speaks: What Anticipatory Grief Is Not

His almost-six-foot frame was loaded down with two suitcases while her 4-foot-ten-inch frame grabbed him around his waist. She had been anticipating his arrival, and now that he had taken two steps over the threshold, she refused to waste any time in welcoming him. Her son-in-law and daughter were home.

Image by Felicity_Kate11 from Pixabay

As I begin to write this blog, it would have been my mom’s 88th birthday, which causes my thoughts to turn towards her. I recall with fondness this repeated scenario when we visited the farm. After my husband had barely entered the farmhouse, he could often be heard saying, “Give me a chance to put down these suitcases, so I can hug you.” Yet, time and time again, she ignored the fact that his hands were full while she wrapped her loving arms around him. All that seemed to matter was that he was no longer absent; he was now present.

Today, I interpret her actions quite differently than I did back then. Back then, I was probably slightly annoyed at being inconvenienced. Today her actions demonstrate to me an eager expression of her anticipation of our arrival coming to fruition. She had enthusiastically looked forward to our visit, but the reality of our presence was far better than its anticipation.

In reflecting upon this scenario, it is a reminder that anticipation and reality are connected but distinct. One may anticipate a certain reality, thereby living in a reality of anticipation. My mother anticipated our arrival, and for a number of days, she lived into the reality of her anticipation. In our absence she prepared for our presence: she cleaned house, cooked meals, and planned for our comfort. This was all done in anticipation of the soon-to-be reality of presence. But when that reality comes, it supersedes the anticipation. Once we had arrived, my mother relished and rejoiced in our presence: she sat, talked, and ate with us. The absence of a particular reality may generate anticipation, but the arrival of a certain reality introduces a presence.

As I consider anticipation/reality and absence/presence, I am reminded of a similar-but-different context, in which a reality is anticipated, but its arrival supersedes the anticipation. I am speaking of anticipatory grief.

Alan Wolfelt describes anticipatory grief as grieving before a person dies. Wolfelt writes:

“We essentially start to rehearse what it will feel like after they are gone. This is normal and necessary, and it does help us move intellectually closer to integrating the reality of the death into our continued living. We step onto death’s doorstep, if you will.”[1]

For some, anticipatory grief is the observance of a parent or grandparent’s aging process. My mom died at age 77 which, depending on how old you are, seems rather youngish. Although my mom’s death was a little abrupt (she died eight days after she had a hemorrhaging stroke), prior to that, I bore witness to her aging process, accompanied by a slow decline. I saw some episodes of dementia, a deterioration in her mobility, and an increased forgetfulness. In the grand scheme of life, her decline was expected . . . anticipated. The parent caring for the child changes to the child caring for the parent until the parent’s death precedes the child’s. This is the natural order of things.

For others, anticipatory grief transpires over months or even years as they care for a person with dementia or a debilitating disease. In this case, some caregivers speak of breathing a sigh of relief after the person dies. It was hard and draining work to witness the loss of a person little by little.

In light of the grieving that transpires in anticipation of the death, some may misbelieve that grief is easy or even non-existent after the person dies. Yet, again and again, despite the preparations, adjustments, and the watchful waiting, adult children and caregivers frequently testify to not being prepared for the shock of the person’s death. Just when they thought they were more than ready for the person’s death, they were not. As one adult child commented, even though her parents were elderly, she misses them and longs for them to be present with her—their absence is now her reality, plunging her into a reality of grief.

In other words, grieving amidst their living, but declining, presence does not render grieving null and void in their absence—that is, their death.

This may be why Kenneth Doka goes as far to assert that anticipatory grief “is a misnomer.” He explains:

“What we grieve throughout the illness are often all the losses associated with the illness—the fact that someone we love often daily loses different capabilities and aspects of self. When the person does die—we now grieve their loss.”[2]

Thus, similarly to the way my mother lived out a reality of anticipation to our visit, which was not the same as the reality of our visit, anticipatory grief during the person’s life does not replace grief and mourning after the person’s death.

Anticipation of their absence does not negate the need for grief/mourning in the reality of their absence. They are in essence two separate but linked realities: one lived in anticipation of a reality, and one lived out upon its arrival.

Unfortunately, the belief that anticipatory grief and grief in the face of the reality of the death are identical may give rise to some less than helpful comments. Some may be quick to say to a mourner, “But she is not suffering anymore”;  “He is in a better place”; or “But our parents can’t live forever. They gotta die sometime.” Such comments fail to validate the bereaved’s reality of grief/mourning after a death. They appear to assume that anticipatory grief remedies, or even eradicates, grief after the death, which invalidates the human experience of grief/mourning after a person dies following an extended illness or aging process. Such invalidation is not the way of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ validation of the human experience of anticipation vs. the actual reality is played out in his very life.

Jesus knows Lazarus is dead in John 11; however, when he is faces the reality of the tomb of his friend, he weeps. Even though Jesus knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, rather than rejoicing at the tomb in anticipation of Lazarus’ resurrection, he weeps as he lives in the reality of Lazarus’ death.

In reading John 14—17, Jesus communicates to his disciples that he will “go away” (die), but he will come back, referring to his post-resurrection appearances. That is, Jesus knows he will die and be resurrected. However, as he lives into the reality of his death, he becomes depressed, weeps, and experiences God’s apparent absence. His anticipation of his death and the anticipation of his resurrection are not the same as the reality of his experience of dying. He experiences grief, and he mourns as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:35; Luke 13:35).

For me, Christ’s living validation of humanity’s experience is an invitation to participate in Christ’s healing ministry. Validation of the other’s grieving experience is healing as it informs the other, “I am not going crazy” and encourages him/her to tell his/her story, which turns grief into mourning, and this is healing. To simplify it: You must tell it to heal it. As we listen with an attentive ear to their stories of grief (rather than fix, advise, compare, or tell our own story), we are participating in Christ’s ministry of validation to the mourner through listening. Thus, as Jesus Christ shows us through his life that he validates human experiences of anticipatory grief and grief/mourning amidst the reality of death, let us participate in that ministry through the power and presence of the Spirit. That is, let us allow the other to teach us about their experience of anticipatory grief and grief/mourning in the reality of the death.

And so in doing so, this is how we will fulfill Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “Weep with those who weep.”  

[1] Alan Wolfelt, “Why Sequence Matters: There Is a Good Reason Why Funerals Follow a Certain Order,” ICCFA Magazine, October 2017, 60-62.

[2] Kenneth Doka, Grief Is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss (NY: Atria Books, 2016), 23.

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