Since anticipatory grieving is preparing for a future loss, it allows us to prevent problems before they arise. On the other hand, not using our ability to heal ahead of a loss wastes opportunities to prepare, as Mario's story illustrates.
Mario had operated a small neighborhood grocery for 32 years when the city notified him that he would have to vacate his building within six months. It had been condemned to make way for new construction.
Mario immediately thought of the losses he would experience: His livelihood, his traditions, his customers, and his plans to turn over the store to his sons. He started healing immediately. He felt the symptoms of grieving: rage, sorrow, and a sense of hopelessness. Unfortunately, however, he stopped his healing the next day. Despite his ability to foresee losing his store, he seemed to believe that he hadn't lost anything.
Mario denied the significance of his approaching loss, not only to himself, but to others. He told his customers of the store's impending closing, but he did so cheerfully--as though it wouldn't really happen. Family members, friends, and customers urged him to find a new location, but he ignored their advice, saying jokingly that he was too tired to start anew.
Unfortunately, by the time he actually lost his store, Mario hadn't resumed his healing. Not only had he failed to prepare himself for his loss, he wasted his anger-energy after his loss occurred. That's how he increased his losses instead of limiting them.
If Mario had used his time and energy to prepare for his expected loss, he could have built a rewarding life for himself after his eviction from his store. He might not have lived longer, but he almost certainly could have lived better. As it was, he lived the rest of his life preoccupied with the past rather than anticipating the future. He sank into a bitter, despairing retirement. Fewer than eleven months after he lost his store, he died from heart failure.
Mario's losses were far more extensive than they needed to be. In effect, he died when his store died. In contrast to Mario, Frank and Melody grieved well for Melody's impending death. They overcame the obstacles to preparing for a future loss.
Despite its advantages, anticipatory grieving is often more difficult than healing after a loss that has already occurred. The main reason for this is that time is limited. Denial and ambivalence also commonly interfere.
The time we have dictates the ways we can prepare. A popular misconception has developed in the last few years based on the so-called "stages of grieving." The idea is that everyone should march lock-step through well defined stages of grieving. This is not realistic, for it uses the premise that all dying persons have the same grief work to accomplish, and that they all have the same amount of time to accomplish their work. Obviously, this premise is false.
The time we have for preparatory grieving varies widely. Sometimes we are warned of an impending loss months or years before it occurs. Other times, we may have only a few seconds, or no time at all. If we are forewarned only a short time before our loss, our denial may render us unable to prepare. At the other extreme, we may have so much time to prepare that, by the time the loss occurs, it may be anticlimactic, and even be welcomed as relief.
Bob, for example, was a young physician who had been practicing for five years in a small town. When he was offered a practice opportunity in a city he preferred, he eagerly accepted it. However, he had to wait six months before moving, so he didn't announce his planned relocation immediately. At first, he was wholly enthusiastic about his new opportunity, but soon he began to think about his anticipated associated losses: He would miss his current patients and his colleagues, as well as the many community activities in which he had been participating. He was reluctant to face these losses, but when he finally concluded saying his goodbyes, he was ready to leave. The problem was, he still had to stay in his practice for two months. Those two months, he told me later, seemed like two years.
Whatever its duration, the period of anticipatory grieving is not always a happy time. Still, an expected loss is usually preferable to an unexpected loss--sudden death, a robbery or fire, a stock market crash, or a catastrophic earthquake. Therefore, whether we expect to lose our life, our job, our home, our marriage, or our life savings, we are fortunate if we have time to prepare. Take advantage of these storm warnings. Don't waste them by wishing for the disaster to bypass you.
Frank and Melody used the time they had together to strengthen their relationship and to celebrate their love. Mario blustered his way through his warnings without preparing, and later paid the price for his short-sightedness.
The problem is, denial of an impending loss is risky: We may lose the opportunity to prepare ourselves for it. For example, a large manufacturing plant recently announced its future closing. Workers and union leaders, perhaps hoping to forestall the inevitable, denied that it would close. Those who participated in this wishful thinking also denied themselves the opportunities to prepare for losing their livelihoods.
Denial of reality is not a conscious operation. It is an unconscious mental habit, beyond our deliberate control. Contrary to common belief, denial is not "lying to oneself." Since lying is conscious deception, it is nonsense to say that we can consciously deceive ourselves.
Two types of denial should be recognized: instinctive and habitual. The normal denial associated with grieving is instinctive, and it is one of the protective devices that is built into us. For example, when we are told that we have a serious disease, our first reaction is to deny the diagnosis. "You must have confused my tests with someone else's," we might tell the doctor. Or we might say to ourselves, "This can't be happening to me."
Instinctive denial is temporary. Prior to hearing bad news, we live our lives routinely, attending to our usual interests. As soon as we receive bad news, our routines are broken. Instinctive denial cushions the immediate impact of this change, and buys time for our unconscious minds to shift gears. Each of us requires our own amount of time to do this, and our instinctive denial usually provides this time. Then, our denial lifts to allow us to cope with our loss. We are prepared to shift our attention to reorganizing our world-image. That's why instinctive denial is healthy.
At first, Frank used instinctive denial to the detriment of Melody and himself. Eventually, however, he discarded his denial and started living his real life. This helped Melody to grieve in anticipation of her inevitable death, and it prepared Frank to grieve for the losses he suffered after Melody died.
Unlike instinctive denial, habitual denial is long-lasting. That is, some people use it as a way to cope with every crisis. Such people simply don't acknowledge their problems. Not surprisingly, it prevents dealing with problems realistically. Since they can't adapt well to life's problems, adults burdened with habitual denial typically need someone else to care for them. In this sense, they never grow up. That's why habitual denial is an unhealthy, immature mental habit.
Mario's story illustrates this kind of immaturity. Mario believed that his store cared for him as a mother would. And since he denied that he could live without his store, he didn't.
Many people who abuse alcohol also ride habitual denial to tragic ends. At first, they may soften the harsh realities of their lives by chemically reinforcing their habitual denial. In the process, of course, they rob themselves of their ability to cope with crises. Lucky alcoholics eventually realize this, and seek and maintain sobriety. Unlucky alcoholics, however, eventually face their ultimate crisis: imminent life threatening damage to their bodies from their accumulated alcohol abuse. Even after repeated warnings from their physicians, they may continue to drink, clinging desperately to their denial, denying even its betrayal of them, to their deaths.
If you drink to forget past injuries, or to deny current realities, change your fate. Find help immediately. Alcoholics Anonymous is available to you right now. Find them in your phone book. And though your loved ones may have nagged you many times to quit drinking, don't stop for them or anyone else. Do it for yourself.
Ambivalence is holding positive and negative feelings about a loved one at the same time. Though ambivalence is normal in every relationship, many people suppress their negative feelings during grieving, and focus exclusively on their positive feelings. By distorting their normal thinking in this way, they invite guilt feelings: Instead of making their negative feelings disappear, they merely drive them underground, into the unconscious mind. There, they operate irrationally and destructively. Calvin suffered from guilt feelings for many years because he hadn't consciously acknowledged his normal, healthy ambivalence toward his brother.
During anticipatory grieving, the extraordinary burdens associated with the crisis may increase negative feelings. For example, we may resent it because our dying loved one isn't able to provide us with companionship as before. Or we may find it difficult to share the suffering of our loved one. These are problems, and every problem generates anger. Anger, in turn, often activates death wishes.
Death wishes are rarely wishes for someone to actually die. They are no more than problem-solving wishes: wishes that problems would disappear. Nevertheless, unless these wishes are understood, they can trigger guilt because the problems are associated with the person who is dying.
Frank experienced death wishes while Melody was dying. They appeared in his dream and tormented him until he could put them in perspective. After he learned that his death wishes were harmless, he shared them with Melody. He then discovered that he was not alone: Melody also harbored problem-solving wishes for her own death.
Death wishes during anticipatory grieving can cause great anguish if you misinterpret them. If you have a loved one who is dying, you might imagine that you are so powerful that your wishes alone can kill the person. If this happens, you might avoid communicating to the point of withdrawing from him or her. In other words, to protect your loved one from your imagined omnipotence, you might leave him or her isolated and lonely.
If, on the other hand, you are dying, you may feel that you are so vulnerable that you are entitled to attack your loved ones who will survive you. You may wish them dead to equalize things. You may even tell them so.
Remember, however, hurting others doesn't help you. In fact, it will probably make them withdraw from you. Obviously, isolating yourself by hurting others is a harmful way of expressing your anger.
It is understandable that you would want to avoid your negative feelings during anticipatory grieving. It is also understandable that you would want to withdraw from your loved one to avoid expressing those feelings. Remember, however, that the period of anticipatory grieving is the last chance you will have to say your goodbyes. Don't waste this opportunity. Rely on the strengths of your relationship. Remind yourself that Frank was grateful that he used his opportunity to share fully in Melody's life before she died. You can be grateful, too.
We noted before that theories of grieving in stages are not realistic. Nevertheless, because the theories receive widespread attention, they are now creating new kinds of conflicts for people who are grieving for an anticipated death--their own or that of a loved one. That's because people have concluded that there is a correct way to die--in stages.
In fact, there is no correct way to die. People usually stay in character as they prepare for their own deaths. Quiet people die quietly, and noisy people die noisily. Good-natured people die good-naturedly, and unhappy people die unhappily. Stingy people are stingy in dying, and generous people remain generous when they are dying. Moreover, each couple grieves uniquely.
In short, people don't miraculously change their personalities to conform to theoretical norms merely because they are dying. Remember this, and you won't be disappointed with your experience in sharing your anticipatory grieving with your loved one. Instead, you might relish it, as I did on one special occasion.
My Uncle Leroy was one of my most beloved relatives. As I grew, he consistently paid attention to my interests and achievements. His praise was resounding, and so was his criticism. He was silent, however, on his emotions. Nevertheless, I never doubted that he loved me deeply.
I visited Uncle Leroy in the hospital shortly before he died. After a few minutes, our conversation came to rest. He looked at me with his eyes misted.
"Donald," he said slowly and deliberately, "I've never told you this, but . . ."
I waited. Then, he concluded his sentiment:
"Well, you know."
Of course, I knew. Though his message lacked words, it was eloquent. It wouldn't have been authentic any other way. Uncle Leroy had remained true to himself, and his affection has continued to warm me, captured in this memory.
Preparing ahead is especially important when we expect our own death or that of a loved one. Unfinished business can't be finished after death. If you are dying, the moments or months before your death will mark your last opportunity to say goodbye to your loved ones, to write your will, to forgive injustices, or to resolve misunderstandings.
If, on the other hand, you expect the death of a loved one, you will be granted no further opportunities to say goodbye, to give or receive forgiveness, or to provide an act of kindness. If you take advantage of this time, you will give yourselves many treasures, to say nothing of minimizing your guilt feelings.
Remember, however, that you may be disappointed in your wish to share your anticipatory grieving with your loved one. For example, if your loved one consistently avoided facing problems realistically, he or she will avoid sharing anticipatory grieving as well. Don't let that person's attitudes prevent you from preparing yourself the best you can. Above all, take time to prepare memories that you can treasure later.