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Can you start grieving ahead of time?

When you learn that a loved one has a terminal diagnosis, many questions start running through your mind. There are questions about second opinions and alternate treatments, what to do next and who to turn to for support. But one question stands out: "How will I live without this person?"

There is also much to be done. There are resources for estate and funeral planning and for advance directives to ensure that your loved one's wishes are honored. Some people even work with their loved one to write an obituary ahead of time. Through all of this, is there time to grieve, at least a little, in advance? And if you can, does it make it easier after the person dies?  

The answer is no. And yes.  

The idea of anticipatory grief is complicated. Some have mistaken the term to mean that one could grieve "ahead of schedule," and in so doing, decrease the pain and the time it takes to heal after a death. But we've seen that this isn't so. Grief is a journey to be traveled, one step at a time. This means that while your loved one is dying, the grief that is experienced is over the losses that are currently occurring. The grief over the death of your loved one can only truly be experienced once the loss has actually happened. 

When a death occurs, whether or not it is expected, there is a reckoning with the loss that no one can ever fully prepare for. You cannot pre-live that. You have no choice but to live in that moment, and then in each moment that follows. Grief keeps evolving as you keep living. 

So where does the "yes" come in? When you are given the chance to anticipate that a loved one is dying, knowing can soften the blow a bit. There is time to say things that have been left unsaid. It is possible to live out the time prior to a death in such a way that the stinging pain of the loss, when it happens, is soothed, if only slightly. 

Even when you know a death is near, there are days to be lived, memories to be made, smiles to share and love to express. And with each day, memory, smile and expression of love, there is a gift given and received between the dying and the bereaved. With each gift, there is a small moment of mending, even before grief is present, for you to return to and take comfort in. It is in these moments that you can begin to learn how to live on when your loved one has not.


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