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My reflection on Anticipatory Grief

Hey there - it’s Fernanda 👋

After losing my dad to a terminal illness in 2022, I embarked on a personal journey of reflection, research, and understanding of death, its emotional impact and the challenges it presents. Life can throw us unexpected challenges, especially when faced with the limited time we have with our loved ones due to terminal illnesses.

Each week I’ll share personal stories, research findings and practical tips you and your loved ones can apply straight away.

Together, we can embrace life’s transitions, and discover positives aspects amidst difficult circumstances. Let’s strive to make these moments a little less sh*t.

Happy Thursday!

A quick recap on last weeks article on practicing empathy and compassion during diagnosis. You can access the full article here.

Today I would like to talk to you about my experience with Anticipatory Grief. We often think of grief as something which happens after a death. However grief can start before someone dies, especially when you or a loved receive a terminal diagnosis.

What am I supposed to do when I won’t get to see you anymore?

That’s what my dad used to say almost every morning back when I was in Mexico taking care of him.

Most of the time, I would just keep quiet, unable to say anything in return. I'd be there, staring at him, gently touching his forehead, and inside my head, I'd be thinking, "What am I gonna do when you're not around anymore?".

It felt like my heart was breaking right then and there. I'd have to bite my tongue, holding back my sadness, not wanting to ruin the morning. Trust me, we already had enough of that heavy atmosphere in his house.

Sometimes, I'd make an effort to pry more information out of him and ask, "What do you mean?" And then he'd reply, "Well, you're going to London, so I'm going to miss you."

Did I think he genuinely meant it? Yes and no.

  • Yes, because he would truly miss me, just like he always did.

  • No, because this time it was different. He was already mourning the life he would not have, even though he was still alive.

I was so present and conscious that he was dying but I was also really scared to confront him and myself with that reality. Why?

Because conversations about death are complicated.

Talking about death, especially when it is so present that you can feel it is hard. It is the elephant in the room and this is when you star experiencing anticipatory grief.

Back to when he was alive, I would often imagine all the things we won’t get to do, he would never see my kids (if I ever have them), he will never see me getting married and I will never hear these words coming out of him anymore:

Become who you are

Nietzche

👆He would tell me this quote probably once a week. Looking back, it was a beautiful way of him telling me I have to find my purpose in this world.

During his last months, I often found him sitting in silence, with his head down. I would ask: dad, what are you thinking? and he would reply: ‘I am contemplating my life, what I’ve done and what I could have done.’

I am a true believer that you can always learn something from every single experience you face, especially the bad ones. For me, my father’s illness and death, was one of the greatest pains, but also one of the greatest gifts. I will talk more about that at some point.

Some of you may now think there is something wrong with me by putting death and gift in the same sentence and as Yalom said…

💡Have you experienced anticipatory grief? I would love to hear your story!

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