A season of anticipation is upon us. As the holidays near, a range of feelings often follows suit: from the butterflies-in-stomach excitement as a child awaits a wished-for gift to the joy-meets-chaos flurry of welcoming family, friends, and neighbors into our homes for a spectrum of celebrations.
Yet there is another form of anticipation whose seeds grow in the soil of loss. For those living with or caring for someone living with chronic, serious, and/or progressive illness, attention often turns to the loss ahead. “Anticipatory grief” is a term used to describe the anticipation of death and loss (in its various forms) that arises throughout the illness experience.
This type of grief may show up in more ambiguous ways, such as feeling that a person we love who is moving through some form of change due to illness (whether physical, cognitive, behavioral, and/or psychosocial) is suddenly unfamiliar to us—simultaneously here and not here. It may also prompt us, at times, to hide our feelings, fearing that other people in our lives may not understand the extent of our hard-to-name but deeply felt grief.
No matter how you experience it, grief is both deeply personal and contextual. The adjustment and reorientation to all parts of self and life that often occurs during a grieving season requires immense patience, support, and compassion to navigate. One piece of wisdom offered by grief educator David Kessler offers illumination on this path. In a webinar presentation, Kessler drew on the words of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher and poet, by paraphrasing, “Grief is not a problem to be solved but an experience to carry.”
The LOSS Acronym For Anticipatory Grief
I will also share an offering in the form of the acronym LOSS, developed during my own walk through grief in 2023 and adapted, in part, from a resource on “Ambiguous Grief”:
Lean away from extreme thinking and towards a “both/and” model. Some examples include: I am both a caregiver and a person with my own needs. I wish for both relief from this suffering and for my loved one to keep living.
Open up to the possibility of nurturing new forms of communication with your loved one. Small shifts can yield meaningful moments, whether using humor, trading in words for a gentle touch of the hands, or even welcoming periods of silence. Instead of needing to be right at every turn, try to embrace simply being in one another’s presence.
Soften expectations of yourself and others. Grief brings a multitude of feelings, the intensity of which can take you on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Build in small breaks for self-care along the way, find rest amid chaos, and offer yourself the same kindness and patience you extend to others.
Seek support from others who can relate. There is tremendous relief, strength, and healing to be found in knowing that you are not alone; that others are going through something new, uncertain, and challenging, too. Support may come in the form of exchanging information or resources, nurturing friendship, offering respite and a listening ear, or seeking out an opportunity to help another person who is grieving.
In this winter edition of our Heart at Home e-newsletter, we are fortunate to share contributions from several members who are walking with grief. Perhaps, like this issue’s featured ElderHealth members, you are also turning to creative outlets such as writing, reading, poetry, and/or visual art as the vessel for thoughts and feelings when words fall short. If so, we welcome your contributions for future publications of this newsletter.
We may never fully fill the void left by the loss of someone we love. Instead, perhaps we can surrender to whatever any given season of grief has to show us, and find solace there.
1. Kessler, David & Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York, Scribner, 2005.
2. Rosenfeld, Kim, LMSW, “Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who is Still Alive.” Pima Council On Aging, 2018.