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Anticipatory Grief | Caring for Yourself and the Nearly Departed

 by Lucille Rossetti

Ancient Norsemen believed they would be reborn in Valhalla upon a brave and noble death by combat. Viking men lived each day waiting with great enthusiasm for the moment they could join their brothers in arms at the great feasts of Odin. Today, society has a different approach, and though death isn’t something we work toward, it remains an inevitable fate of all living creatures.

When you have a terminally ill or aged loved one, death doesn’t always come swiftly, as for our fighting forefathers. From the moment of diagnosis or the realization that death is near, we enter a stage known as anticipatory grief. Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D. a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, explains that anticipatory grief is not part of the post-death grieving process; it’s a separate experience that can be shared with the dying.


“Bringing home a terminally ill loved one can be an emotionally charged time in both the caregiver’s life and the final days of the patient. Coming home can bring a great deal of peace and comfort to a person looking at the end of their life.” As Redfin further explains, most adults (and children) facing death wish to be in their own beds, surrounded by familiarity. As emotionally difficult as this may be for the caregiver and family, this is one way to honor the dying and a last chance to provide comfort as well as say goodbye.

Awaiting the end

Sitting by the side of your loved one knowing death is waiting in the shadows can have a significant impact on your life. There are, however, a few ways to cope with your grief and help your dying friend or family member do the same:

Express your feelings -- Seek spiritual counseling, join a support group, draw, paint, or keep a journal; these activities will help you come to grips with your emotions.

Take care of your health – There will be stress and lots of restless nights; do what you can to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.

Spend time with the dying – When you’re aware that your loved one is dying, you’re in a unique position to both say goodbye and to make the most of the time you have left. Spend time together by going through photographs, reminiscing, listening to their stories about the past, or simply providing physical and emotional comfort.

Practice forgiveness -- Caring for a loved one with a terminal illness gives you the chance to part ways without the baggage of anger, mistrust, and negativity you may have felt for them in recent (or long past) years.

While there is nothing you can do to prevent the impending death, you can make your loved one’s passing more comfortable by keeping his or her surroundings calm and peaceful. If they’re lucid, talk to them and answer any questions they may have. If they can’t speak, know that they are aware on some level of your presence and appreciate your love and dedication.

Forever in your heart

There are many ways that you can honor the memory of your loved one and preserve his or her legacy for the next generation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Create a memory box of their favorite things – recipes, books, photographs, etc.
  • Fund a memorial scholarship
  • Preserve their photographs digitally
  • Go back to school to pursue a shared passion
  • Sponsor a bench at a local park or section of highway in their hometown
  • Complete their bucket list
  • Plant a tree/garden in their honor

Watching someone die is never easy. Many would argue that knowing death is near makes it exponentially harder. But, when you have the opportunity to say goodbye, make amends, and display your undying love for the nearly departed, take it. It will help you and your loved one find closure and may even change your relationships with your family and friends who remain

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