Even as adults, we tend to view our parents and grandparents as invincible. They have always been the strong ones; the ones to lift us up when we fall, to comfort us when we are feeling down, to remind us that we are loved on the days we feel alone. It can be a shock to the system when suddenly, the roles are reversed, and it’s our turn to care for them. On some level, we knew that this stage of life was coming, but we still can’t be prepared to face it until we just don’t have a choice.
Watching a loved one decline is far from an easy process – in fact, it can be utterly heart-wrenching. While we want our loved one’s inevitable aging to happen gradually, the truth is that oftentimes, the shift from independent to dependent happens quite suddenly. You might be left feeling unprepared and overwhelmed as you begin your new role as a caretaker. You might also experience what is known as anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief takes place before a loved one’s death. It can begin as soon as you notice signs of decline. If your father is starting to lose his keys on a regular basis or your mother can no longer get out of a chair without assistance. If you have noticed that in these moments, you feel a sudden pang of sadness, frustration, or even resentment, that’s anticipatory grief sinking in.
Remember when you notice these feelings, that they are completely normal and even expected as you face this difficult time. Many people feel guilty when they are grieving before a loss – like they are giving up hope for their loved one. This is not the case. As long as you are there for your loved one – encouraging them and showing them your love and support – you are not giving up on them.
Anticipatory grief can hit a lot faster if your loved one was recently diagnosed with an illness. You might find that you are facing one of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance – as soon as you find out. The five stages of grief are not reserved for those grieving a permanent loss and they do not occur in any particular order. Most people facing grief will switch between the stages frequently. If they are experiencing anticipatory grief, they might feel angry more often or have a hard time controlling their emotions at all.
Anticipatory grief isn’t just grief for a loss to come. It’s also grief for the changes you are noticing in your loved one. These changes can feel enormous and confusing, so be gentle with yourself as you learn to accept them. You might find, too, that you’re especially taken by the small changes. You might have memories of the sound your mother’s feet made as they paraded down the stairs in the morning. When you listen to the wheels of her chair turn instead, or the slow and quiet thumps of her struggling feet, you might find yourself suddenly awash in sadness.
You also might find yourself getting impatient with your loved ones. You are not used to your father taking so long to eat his breakfast or your mother having to put so much focus into remembering something. It can feel frustrating, irritating, and even maddening as you watch them struggle with everyday tasks. These feelings are completely normal. They are instinctual reactions that occur as a defense mechanism against sadness.
On a subconscious level, your mind does not want to accept that anything is wrong, so you fight against the warning signs. You’re angry because if you are sad, you are admitting that there is a problem. That your father isn’t just eating slowly because he wants to, he’s eating slowly because that’s all he can do these days.
If watching your loved one decline feels like facing a huge and heavy loss – that’s because it is. You might find yourself grieving for the past and fearing for the future in a way you never had before. It’s important to remember that, if you are having these feelings, you are not alone. Hopefully, this episode will provide a sense of comfort and wisdom to anyone who needs it.