October 7, 2017

Anticipatory Grief and Anxiety

As I'm writing this, my 18 year old blind, deaf, poodle that has been my best friend for the past 16 years is snoring loudly next to me. She and I have been through everything together: first boyfriends, first breakups, first apartments, new cities, and that one time we went rafting down the Chattahoochee River together. She’s my baby girl except she’s definitely not a baby anymore and in dog years, she’s probably nearing 100. Most of the time, she seems pretty good. She still likes going on walks and occasionally takes off running if she thinks she’s about to get fed. She’s still silly and playful. But she’s also on about five different medications to keep her heart and liver going. Sometimes her breathing is labored or she has trouble standing and I’m reminded I don’t get to have her in my life forever. And in those moments grief kicks in like she’s already gone and my anxiety begins to ramp up. I start to think through what I’ll do if I come home and she’s gone or if she leaves me in the middle of the night. And I cry because it’s hard and it sucks.

Anticipatory Grief is that terrible, awful, anxiety you get when someone you love might be sick or nearing the end of their life. You might constantly imagine what it is going to be like when they die or wonder “What if I’m not there? What if that thing I said is the last thing I get to say to them?” This creates a terrible pressure on yourself to live every moment perfectly with that person (or pet!). You  might start beating yourself up for not appreciating the time you have. And if you’re already an anxious person, your alertness probably goes into hyperdrive.

So here are five things you can do to help lessen some of that anxiety.

  1. Express Gratitude
  • List three things you are grateful for every morning and every evening. Try to be as specific as possible. It doesn’t have to be about that person, it can be about anything. My three from today:
    • I’m so glad my dog was able to go for a walk today.
    • I love the way the sun comes through the window.
    • I love the way the air smells in the fall.
  1. Be Mindful
  • Anticipatory grief pulls us out of the present and creates this huge anxiety about an unpredictable future. Mindfulness helps us be present in the moment and helps stop our brains from jumping from topic to topic.
    • Every morning I sip my coffee slowly and think about how it tastes, smells, feels.
  1. Let people know
  • We don’t really talk about anticipatory grief. We’re told to be thankful we still have that individual in our lives but sometimes just saying the words “I’m scared, stressed, want to get this over with…” etc can help. Likely other people in your life have had similar experiences.
  1. Plan
  • If some of your anxiety comes from not knowing what to do if that person dies, create a plan. Know who you are going to call, have funeral arrangements decided etc. If it’s a pet, know who will retrieve the body and if you want to do cremation.
  1. Acknowledge Those Tough Thoughts and Practice Self-Compassion
  • It’s okay if part of you thinks it will be a relief when that person or pet is gone. Caregiving is so hard and that anxiety every time the phone rings is exhausting. It doesn’t mean you love them less; it means you are human and being "on" all the time isn't possible. Taking care of yourself is important.
    • When those tough thoughts get to be too much, I make sure to spend time outside because that is when I feel most at peace.

Click here to read more about anxiety therapy.

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