I experienced the sudden death of my father when I was twelve years old. It was a shock that no one expected - he was in good health and only 46 years old, after all.
When we lost Grandma a few years later, though, it was completely different. Grandma had been diagnosed with a rare lymphoma that weakened her relatively quickly. We went through chemo and radiation treatments with her, but it didn’t take long to see that her body would not be able to withstand it.
My family members and I treasured every moment with her, every simple conversation, every bird that passed by her bedside window. We walked around the house, did chores, or grabbed fresh glasses of water as if we were on autopilot. Make it through, make it through. We knew the inevitable was coming. Watching her chest rise and fall as she slept in her bed, hospice assistant nearby, anyone could tell that this was no way to live. Her death wasn’t about “losing a battle to cancer,” or “giving up the fight,” it was a simple relief to know that she wasn’t in pain anymore.
With my Grandma, we grieved the loss of her quality of life way before we actually lost her. That’s just one example of anticipatory grief.
What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is grief over the loss of a loved one before the loss actually happens (due to impending illness, life transition, or relational upheaval, as in a divorce). I also use the term “anticipatory grief” to describe what we feel after we’ve lost someone, but maybe an especially difficult day in coming up (the first Christmas without them, their deathiversary, etc.) and we’re anticipating it being a rough day for us without them there.
Why do we experience anticipatory grief?
Of course, your reasons and experience are unique to you. But I think in general, we do it as a coping mechanism - seeking to preparing ourselves ahead of time so that the final blow won’t seem so bad. Think about it:
Replaying is how our minds/hearts try to resolve trauma in the past.
Rehearsing is how our minds/hearts try to anticipate trauma in the future.
Is it healthy to experience anticipatory grief?
Depends. Experiencing thoughts and emotions ahead of time can lead to relief when the loss actually happens (I felt this way when my grandma’s suffering from cancer finally ended). Thinking about a future stressful event might also help you make necessary preparations for when that reality comes to pass. But this mental and emotional anticipation can also become an unhelpful occasion to worry (ie, borrow trouble from the future). It can take us out of the present moment and even increase the magnitude of emotions we’re trying to cope with in the NOW.
Anticipatory grief can feel like being in a canoe that's swiftly drifting towards some rapids.
Anticipatory grief can feel like being in a canoe that's swiftly drifting towards some rapids. The things you're anticipating up ahead make life in your canoe quite scary. You might be feeling increasingly anxious and fearful, even though the rapids might be quite far ahead.
So, what to do???
(The following is adapted from a writeup by Jen Alward (Art Therapist) of Hope and Healing at Home, for whom I originally composed this activity. You can also view the live IGTV version of this activity below. Project starts at min. 4:37)
Pencil, pen, colored pencils, markers, or crayons, etc.
Start with drawing an image.
Draw a banana shape in the middle of your paper.
Draw a post by each point that extends slightly below the banana curve.
Draw waves across the page under the banana shape, connecting with the bottom of the posts.
Slightly behind that, draw the other side of the river, by drawing a wavy line on either side of the boat.
Emotions are like river currents and waves - they flow in and out and past and through our lives.
Think about the emotions that you are having right now as you grieve the upcoming loss in your life (person, pet, position, or place). Write these emotions in the water under the boat and connect them with with wavy lines to create more waves and currents under the boat.
Next, think about the things you are carrying with you on this journey. These can be considered cargo in your boat: daily duties, friendships, decisions, questions, and things you feel overwhelmed by, etc. Write these inside the boat.
Read/think: We know there are rapids coming. We see the changes and loss approaching and our boat is heavy. We need to sift through it and decide what can be pitched overboard so our boat can float higher and survive the rapids. What can be delegated? What can be put off or postponed for a bit? What can just be left undone or released? Some of these things will float down the river on their own and we can pick them back up later. Others we may choose not to pick back up. And still some, may simply take a different path of their own.
Choose how to depict these cargo items leaving your boat. I like to draw arrows coming from each item and descending into the water below.
Last step: Re-gaining a sense of control
This feels better, but it still feels like things are out of control and you’re not sure what’s coming next. We have one more step in this activity that will help give you some power back.
Draw an oar, or two (I use simple spoon shapes in the demonstration). An oar represents direction, strength, and energy - the things you write in these oars will help you navigate the rapids and obstacles ahead. Things like your spirituality, good friends, your pets, self-care activities and even things that may distract you or bouy you up with a little hope.
What gives you direction, strength, or energy? Write your ideas around your oars. Examples: Taking a nap, going for a walk, buying yourself flowers, looking at photos, being intentional to have quality time with the person, pet or place you’re about to lose, etc.
Questions to Ponder:
Is there anything you’d like to add or change in your image?
Are there obstacles you’ve already come past? What helped you get past them?
Do you see any specific obstacles coming up? What might help you navigate the upcoming obstacles successfully?
What insights or messages would you like to carry with you from this activity?
Emotions are states of being that we pass through. They’re like the water beneath the boat. We can choose to navigate the river, instead of being drowned by it. In order to navigate well, we need to lighten our physical/emotional/mental loads a little bit. To regain a sense of direction and control, we need to obtain or take up our oars.
According to dictionary.com, the word “Equanimity” means the “mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.”
Statement of resilience:
I am equanimous: able to weather many storms. I can’t take away or avoid all the storms, but with a few adjustments, as well as support and outside help, I can weather them well.
If you feel comfortable sharing an image or your thoughts on this process with us, please do. Email myself at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jen Alward at email@example.com. You can also post your finished piece on Instagram and tag @ProjectGriefArt and @hope_and_healing_at_home.
As Jen writes, “It’s always encouraging to see how others are using these activities and how art is helping to bring hope and healing into your lives and homes.”