I was talking with someone recently about grief when she said that it felt like being on a roller coaster ride. This person is facing the impending death of a loved one even as there is no definitive timeline per the treatment team. We spoke of the dynamic of anticipatory grief and the ways in which it impacts the process of letting go of this person as she plans her future in the face of his eventual absence.
I have found both in my therapeutic practice and in my personal life, that anticipatory grief genuinely effects mourners, although a 2006 article published in the Counseling, Psychology, and Health Journal questions if it exists as a phenomenon.1 In nearly 40 years in practice, I have sat with widows and widowers, siblings, children and parents who have spoken about preparing themselves for the inevitable passing and the ways in which it was helpful, even as they knew that it was not fully possible.
When my husband was in the end stage of liver disease, I looked in the mirror each morning and asked, “Is this the face of a woman about to lose her husband?” Call it denial, perhaps, but for most of the five and half weeks he was in the MRICU (Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit), the answer was “No.” That was until the day that his doctor called me aside and discussed disconnecting life support. Through my sleep deprived fog, I had to change the answer to, “Yes. Today is the day that I say the final goodbye,” although I had been doing so gradually, even as I held out hope that a liver transplant would indeed occur, and he would live.
When both of my parents were receiving hospice care, I was in that limbo state of waiting for the phone to ring with the call that would have me boarding a plane to fly to South Florida for their funerals. I pondered what my life would be like without the daily check-in calls and familiar voices on the other end of the line. Now, 10 years post passing of my father and nearly eight after my mother’s death, I am certain that they had raised me to be able to live without them. I still miss them profoundly, even as I feel their presence powerfully.
A dear friend whose husband died a few years ago, was clear about her feelings, that although she prepared for his death, since he had been ill for many years, she wasn’t prepared to live without him. Even though that is her truth, as she continues to live what appears to be a robust and resilient life, in her private moments, the devastating reality is, that her Beloved is not with her and she still deeply grieves. One thing that is abundantly clear, there is no statute of limitations on grief.
What occurred to me and what I shared was that the roller coaster ride of grief it is not like the typical carnival attraction since that one is time-limited, you know you are going to get off in five minutes and you can predict the twists and turns since you can see the track before you sit down. It is exhilarating and fun.
With grief, there is no way to tell how long the ride will last, the track changes and switches position once you are on board and much of the time, you feel like you are riding upside down. You are also not likely to lift your arms over your head and yell, “Whhhheeee!” Be sure to buckle your seatbelt and keep your hands on the bar for support. It is quite the wild ride.
I watched this Facebook video that shares the story of one family and the ride they were on with their daughter whose life was swept away by cancer. They found themselves lofted by her intermittent recovery and plummeted precipitously by her eventual succumbing to the disease. Sixteen years have passed since she took her final breath and I imagine that there are times that her parents still feel like the breath is being sucked from their own lungs.
I polled friends about their metaphor for grief:
“I began to experience my brain as being swollen. (Trauma) that reframing helped me be gentle with the awareness that my brain did indeed feel swollen. Cloudy. Forgetting things. Uncertainty beyond what is normal for my brain when it wasn’t swollen. It can be scary. Particularly when people move on and forget and say things to you like “you’re too young” indicating dementia -that’s the last thing any grieving person needs. An add on from those who forget what it was like for them or maybe haven’t really experienced — what you are experiencing. If there is one thing I learned in real-time with the recent loss of my father it would be: people really do not have a clue… happy when education and awareness is offered.”
“I speak of the roller coaster ride too and there isn’t a time limit either. It is quick unexpected and at times shocking. The remedy I have is that I express my grief any way I like. I work with grief and can share some of the silly things I do (according to some and those I no longer hang around with) that help others grieve in their own way. I also have noticed that I tend to hang around with people who get it – whatever the injury happens to be. People with whom I can laugh, cry, talk about my precious three or not without thinking I AM GETTING OVER IT. That will never happen — I function well and remain accountable for the way I feel.”
“I never gave it an actual metaphor but now that I think about it, it feels like a yo-yo. There are good days and bad and back and forth again. There are days I think of someone and cry, other days I laugh. Up and down.”
This assessment will assist in determining the impact of complicated grief.
- Reynolds, L. and Botha, D. (2006). Anticipatory grief: Its nature, impact, and reasons for contradictory findings. Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Health, 2(2), pp.15-26.