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Anticipatory Grief

The term anticipatory grief refers to the feelings of loss before the impending death of a loved one; it is prevalent but rarely discussed. As I have experienced this over the past few years, I thought it would be good to write about how it feels for me.

When my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago, I was ambivalent at first. This is a man who has overcome so much in his lifetime. He has conquered heroin addiction, alcoholism, a punctured lung, liver cancer, a liver transplant, the death of his wife, divorce and probably lots more I am unaware of. He is one of life's endurers and a true warrior (although he would tell me to F-off while getting all embarrassed at any trumpeting of his achievements). So when he rang and said, "I've got lung cancer, love", I was naturally worried but having had to plan his funeral on more than one occasion, I jumped back on the roundabout of here we go again.

In what became a three-year ordeal of misinformation, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, horrific scars, several operations, respite care, cancelled respite care, cuts to funding, you name it, we went through it. It was like living in a permanent state of conflict. Fight or flight response was present every minute of every day for three years.

Fear and anxiety are an everyday part of life when someone is coping with a terminal diagnosis. After the operation to remove the tumour from his lung, a further scan showed that the cancer had, in fact, spread, and the oncologist told us that, realistically, he would have six months to live. So you wane in and out of feeling fast and loose with hope, fear, pragmatism, frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, being just a few. These intrusive thoughts and emotions have severe effects on your mental wellbeing and could tip even the strongest people over the edge.

I feel I should be honest at this point and say that I don't have the answers on how to cope with all this, but I did find that when I spoke to someone about what I was going through, in my case, a kind volunteer at the hospital's local Maggie's centre, I felt relief.

Grief is a very lonely journey because it affects everyone differently. While there are well-documented stages of grief, how each person interprets it varies, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The same goes for anticipatory grief too.

The greatest gift you can give yourself and the person for whom you are caring is some form of relief. A slight easing of the energetic pressure that goes with caring for someone who has been told their death is imminent.

You don't realise that you are such a warrior to get up every morning and face the tsunami of challenges. When I look back now, I feel proud of myself (and my Dad) for getting through the situation as we did. It was hard, and I did a lot of things that I would do differently again. However, it is poetic for me that despite all these challenges, he is still standing and is in remission, but as I said at the start, he is a soldier of endurance, and God only knows why he has dealt with so much in his life. He's certainly not a bad person; he is intelligent, brave, a massive softie and has taught me a lot about life.

During it all, I took deep comfort in my spiritual beliefs. I had reiki sessions and spoke to my soul coach, who is the most fantastic human and reframed my racing mind to accept that what I was dealing with was genuinely awful, and it was no wonder that my mind wouldn't rest or quit the intrusive thoughts. I'm not advocating this is for everyone; it's just what helped me.

In the longer term, this experience has helped me become a better funeral celebrant because I can listen to stories of people who have been through this and genuinely empathise rather than pay lip service to their grief.

Reading also helped. Authors like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her excellent book 'Life After Death' and Anna Lyons and Louise Winter's book 'We All Know How This Ends' have been incredible tools to help me cope.

Death is not spoken about openly in Western society, and the answers to our questions may not come from places you expect. Sometimes just a gentle conversation is enough to release the pressure cooker in your mind.

It's good to talk!


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