Knowing that inevitably we are going to lose our child has no place in our life experiences to prepare us. Of course, we intellectually know that one day everyone will die, and nobody gets to know when that will be. However, we expect, hope, and plan for guiding our children to adulthood. We plan on watching them spread their wings and head into a life of independence. I think it is fair for me to say all parents have that hope. Anticipatory grief is facing the death of a loved one. I will summarize some thoughts from Lynn Eldridge MD (Nov 18, 2019) in How Anticipatory Grief differs from Grief after Death.
A lot of the typical responses of grief may occur before death. In preparation for the pain ahead, some people will try to “steel themselves” for what inevitably lies ahead. As they start to see the child failing, the health weakening, the death may seem more natural. I have worked with many families that had children that were sent “home to die”. The parents amazed me in how they continued to look for the signs that “today would not be the day”, but also took more time to sit down, just hold, and very much live in the moment that their child was still with them, if only for this brief moment. However, they were still sad, tearful irritable, and angry that this was happening to them. “If you don’t have a safe place to express your grief these emotions can lead to social withdrawal or emotional numbness to protect the pain in your heart”. It is a delicate balance of holding on and letting go.
When someone is dying, they often tend to withdrawal within themselves to prepare for their death, at least as adults. Both my parents, knowing of their impending death, made it difficult for us to see them. It is like they were trying to help us learn to live without their presence, even prior to their death. Children can be very frank about their upcoming death, and in a society that doesn’t talk about death much, this can be unnerving. I found children want more concrete answers… such as “will it hurt”.Providing support and reassurance is what most of us want, that our pain will be manageable, that we won’t be alone.
Knowing your child is here for a limited time, is a challenge most of us never face. Your grieving will probably begin long before your child passes and that is normal and natural and should not be seen as giving up hope but as a method of self-care and preservation.