Just about everyone has some awareness of grief that occurs after death of a family member or friend. Much has been written about it, but most of us don’t think of anticipatory grief that occurs before death. There seems to be agreement that not everyone experiences this kind of grief, and I imagine that is a difficult issue to measure. It’s something many people have never thought about, and, thus, are not likely to recognize or say they are experiencing or have experienced it.
As you might expect, I am in touch with a lot of caregivers of people with dementia. Anticipatory grief is a topic that comes up periodically. It is easy to see how the concept would be relevant for this group because of the lengthy span of time between diagnosis and death. Many people view the diagnosis as a “death sentence.” Since there is no current cure for the disease, I understand this thinking. My personal preference, however, has been to focus on the positive side and concentrate on the value of the remaining time that Kate and I have to enjoy life and each other. Having said that, I must admit that the diagnosis did serve as a wake-up call that life does not go on forever. We know this anyway, but the diagnosis of dementia is usually a significant signal that death is sooner than we had expected.
Lynne Eldridge, M.D. (https://www.verywellhealth.com/understanding-anticipatory-grief-and-symptoms-2248855) talks about the nature of anticipatory grief, and, like most authorities, is careful to acknowledge that “everyone grieves differently.” She suggests that such grief can be like a roller coaster ride with all its ups and downs. It’s not constant. With that in mind, she identifies the following symptoms one might experience.
- Sadness and tearfulness
- Fear of death itself and the changes that will accompany it
- Irritability and anger
- A desire to talk
- Intense concern for the person dying
- Rehearsal of the death – visualizing what your life will be like
- Physical problems – sleep and memory, and
- Fear of loss, compassion, and concern among children facing death of a parent
Recently, I have wondered if I’m experiencing this grief and, if not, if and when will it occur. This has led me to think about the symptoms listed above as well as the degree to which I experience them. Here are my thoughts.
I quickly eliminated the following signs: irritability and anger, loneliness, desire to talk, and guilt. I may a bit more irritable because I often feel more rushed than usual. If so, it is minimal, and I don’t feel lonely or guilty at all. I do like to talk, but that was true long before Kate was diagnosed.
I experience each of the remaining symptoms to a greater or lesser degree. Here is how I would rank them in terms of their intensity.
I often feel sadness and occasionally experience tearfulness, especially at services for friends who have died. There have also been a number of moments when I choked up while talking with someone about Kate. This has been true since her diagnosis. As her Alzheimer’s has progressed, I have felt sadness each time we did something that was or I thought would be the last time. That includes our international travel as well as trips to New York City, Chautauqua, and our children’s homes. In addition, my eyes often fill with tears during my happy/sad moments with Kate. One that comes to mind is when she asked, “Would you consider marrying me?” during a conversation at a local restaurant about a year ago, but there have been many others.
The sadness I am talking about is not lasting. It is momentary, but I have sensed a greater degree of sadness recently that relates directly to Kate’s decline over the past few weeks (months?). I have experienced hospice with three of our parents, and my current feelings are more like those except for the clearer reality of impending death associated with their situations. With Kate, I also continue to have uplifting experiences that prevent the sadness from being a problem. Nonetheless, there is a real difference in the way I feel now. I think that relates to some of the other symptoms listed above.
I don’t think the word “fear” best describes my feelings, but I don’t want to face what lies ahead for us. When the time comes, I am sure I will handle the situation as I have done in the past. I think the word “anxiety” is a better word than “fear” to describe my feelings. This seems like a very natural response for a spouse whose loved one is entering this stage.
I often think about life after Kate’s passing. I don’t know how someone in my position could avoid that. This will be the most dramatic change of my life since we married, and it’s a permanent one. At the same time, I know many people, including my father, who adapted well after the loss of a spouse. I believe that I, too, will adapt.
I wake up more often at night and have difficulty getting back to sleep. I also sense that my memory has been affected by the demands of caregiving. To date, neither of these has been a serious problem. I’m not sure what to expect in the future.
When I think of each one of these symptoms, I would say none comes close to the feeling of sadness in terms of intensity. There is no denying, however, that I experience anticipatory grief. The question is “How will I handle it?” I am optimistic, but I also believe it won’t be easy.