Preparing for a loved one’s death is almost unimaginable, but there are steps you can take to prepare yourself.
There’s no easy way to prepare for the death of a loved one. It’s a topic that makes most people feel sad and uncomfortable. But planning for this overwhelming experience may help make the process (when the time comes) a bit more manageable.
The grieving process often starts before you even experience the loss of a loved one. This is called anticipatory grief.
“Anticipatory grief can occur days, months, or even years before the death of a loved one,” explains Annia Palacios, a licensed professional counselor practicing in Texas and Florida.
The usual stream of flowers and cards is absent because the loved one has not yet passed on, so many people feel alone in their grief, says Palacios. “An increased sense of isolation can be common in anticipatory grief.”
Still, you can prepare yourself to be better equipped to manage grief when the time comes. Following a plan may provide you with a sense of normalcy in a time that feels otherwise out of your hands. Here are some considerations:
Everyone approaches mortality differently. Some people choose to take the time to mend relationships and others share memories or lessons learned. While there’s no easy way to navigate conversations, it’s important to take the time to tell your loved one whatever it is you want them to hear.
Sarah Harmon, a licensed mental health therapist and the founder of The School of MOM who resides in Charlestown, Massachusetts, suggests taking time to reflect on what you want to say.
She suggests asking yourself, “What would I wish I would have said to them when they are no longer alive and/or able to hear it?” Then, write your thoughts down in a journal or say them into the air to get clarity on what it is you want to say.
“Then, prioritize having the conversation or writing/giving them the letter that expresses your thoughts and sentiments. […] Commit to doing this ASAP”, says Harmon, even though it may be emotionally hard to do.
Grief can feel incredibly lonely. You can have a huge support system and still feel isolated says, Andrea Dorn, a licensed clinical social worker and author of the upcoming book, “When Someone Dies: A Children’s Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Loss.”
“Allow yourself to accept the support offered by others. If you find yourself in a situation where you do not have a support system, consider joining a support group, connect with your spiritual community, or reach out to people you know,” says Dorn.
It can be healing to share your story with others or hear about others in the same situation. Connecting with others can also help you get comfortable asking for help.
“During the grief process, there will be times where you need help from friends, and if you practice asking for this help in the time before the loved one dies, you will be better at it when the time comes and you need it,” says Lily Thrope, a licensed clinical social worker in New York.
You can find information about some online grief support groups here.
“Preparing for a loved one’s death can be incredibly exhausting,” says Dorn. She suggests slowing down, sitting with your emotions, and making time for yourself.
“Give yourself permission to set aside at least 15 minutes per day to intentionally engage in self-care practices without interruption,” says Dorn.
Self-care may also include getting out and being with people. Even though you may be grieving what is to come, “being social is still allowed,” says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Niantic, Connecticut.
She suggests joining a fitness class or trying mind-body activities like yoga or meditation to help you get your emotions out and connect to the spiritual world.
“Feeling all of your emotions are part of this process and can be very beneficial,” Ziskind says.
“There are mental health benefits to taking time off work to sit with the grief and process it before jumping back into work,” Thrope says.
But “there are also benefits to getting back into your usual routine, including work,” she adds. When days are hard, some people find comfort in their routine.
There’s no right answer when it comes to grief, so it can help to check in with yourself and think about what feels right at the moment.
Thrope suggests talking with your co-workers and manager about what is going on in your life so that you can take the time off when needed.
For example, if you find that in the middle of the day you’re just not up to continue working, you can step out and feel OK about it because you have your colleague’s support.
Grief affects different people in different ways. It may come in waves, and it may change over time. Nevertheless, once you experience it, it may never completely exit your life.
Leaning into your emotions and understanding what grief is and knowing warning signs to look out for is important, Dorn says.
Grief can come and go. It may reoccur on anniversaries, like birthdays and holidays, Dorn adds. Grief can also turn into something more that may require treatment.
“Prolonged grief disorder and clinical depression can emerge or intensify in relation to the experience of losing someone close to you,” she says.
Symptoms that may require additional support include:
- suicidal ideation or self-harm ideation at any time during the grieving process
- persistent sadness accompanied by unchanging feelings of hopelessness or extreme apathy
- yearning or a preoccupation with the deceased
Dorn says these disorders can be difficult to differentiate from standard grieving. If these symptoms apply to you, a mental health professional can offer some help.
Here are some articles that can help you learn more about grief:
- Refuge in Grief: Exploring What It Means to Grieve
- All About Disenfranchised Grief
- How Children Process Grief and How to Help Them
Other articles can help you process and cope with grief. Here are some options to either read through now or bookmark for when they might come in useful:
- Healthy Ways to Navigate Grief
- 6 Coping Skills to Work Through Grief
- Coping with Grief: How the Ball and the Box Analogy May Help
- How to Cope When You’re Grieving the Loss of a Pet
- Coping with Grief and Depression After an Abortion
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available
You can access free support right away with these resources:
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line.Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
- Veterans Crisis Line.Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
- Deaf Crisis Line.Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
- Befrienders Worldwide.This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Preparing for a loved one’s death is never easy. It can help to plan so you’ll be better equipped with how to handle the experience when the time comes. You can prepare as much as you can and still feel overwhelmed by the loss when it happens, and that’s natural.
Know that you are not alone. Support groups can offer you additional support for those who may find it difficult to talk with their family or friends. Consider reaching out to the following: