There’s a Name for That Lingering Sadness You Might Be Feeling
Anticipatory Grief Casts Long Shadows
Both the depravations and the comforts of our childhood can haunt us past what we imagine. One area that I was deprived of was emotional literacy, which hasn’t served me well. I am learning, slowly, that something as simple as a label can help create a richer picture of life. That being able to identify experiences and feelings adds context and color to our story. Importantly, it is better to learn these things later than to not understand them at all.
As a Chaplain, regular supervision — i.e. time spent in reflection with a qualified, experienced practitioner — is a requirement. In my last session, I led with the question of “Is it possible to focus on love, peace, connection and purpose but leave hope out of the picture? I am tired of bearing false hope.” From this, my wise and generous supervisor was able to untangle that I was feeling hopeless in many ways. The long answer is that I have to live it before I can speak it. And in the midst of it all, he said something that I haven’t stopped thinking about. He told me that I was suffering from anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief is a feeling of grief occurring before a real or imagined loss that has not yet occurred. It can include all of the emotions and stages of grief, and be just as unknowable and uncontainable as grief after an event. Anticipatory grief is often associated with the decline and impending death of of a loved one. But as my supervisor illustrated, it can be attached to anything where loss is part of the process.
As a Chaplain, I work with people who are mourning significant loss— their homes, independence, families, identities — on top of the reality that they will likely stay with us until they die. As someone who is new to this work, I have also had to learn quickly that some people die unexpectedly. Some die while I am scheming how to help them. And some know it’s coming whether we do or not. I see now, though, what I didn’t see before. For every person that I open my heart to, each one I admire and learn from, all who make me smile, I am mourning for them. Mourning that I might come in tomorrow to find them gone. Saddened that I will have to walk with them through their end stages. Beaten down by the reality that they won’t make it through lockdown. And on and on.
But now I can identify it. I can speak it out loud to other staff, to peers, to my counselor. And better, I can start to see how this is playing out in other parts of my life.
The pandemic brought an end to a relationship that gave me what I most wanted, children. We were partners who were living like roommates and while we found a therapist who was great for both of us, we also found that we had left it too late. And so we reached conclusions and went our separate ways all in the longest lockdown in the world. But where was the grief? The process has been, well, not bad. We are both crazy about our kids and trust each other as parents. We want to be civil for their sake and haven’t had a single disagreement since we’ve been on our own. But I confess that in the background there is anticipatory grief grinding away, worrying about how this might affect the children, what will new partnerships mean, how will things change as the kids get older, so many others. So there, I’ve labeled it. I can look at it. Identify it. Work through it. It is no longer whirring away in the background, urging me to eat or sleep or scroll or a thousand other things to avoid it. It is now labeled. Identified. Seen.
This also helps ease my general anxiety by opening doors that I had only previously guessed about. When I observe a series of behaviors in me that points to stress or sadness, instead of guessing and often ignoring the feelings, I can now poke around and see if it is related to anticipatory grief. Is this about the pandemic (we are not yet in the after times, people!)? Global warming? Ecological destruction? End stage capitalism? The impacts of technological change? The lack of empathy and progress on issues like racism, imprisonment, drugs, mental health, refugees and violence? All of these have some level of anticipatory and current, lived grief attached to them. While I don’t have power to change any of these on my own, I can identify how it is affecting me, and maybe others, and in that illumination we can rise above the disempowerment wrought by our grief and act on what is important.
The meme of self-care comes from good intentions. Without it, we risk losing our ability to care outwardly. But hydration and online yoga will only get us so far. We have to go deeper into the landscapes of our psyche, our emotions and our spirit to identify what else is holding us down, or back, or off to the side. Anticipatory grief is a shadow that we can look for and work with. In doing so, we get clarity about our fears and insight into our emotional and physical reactive states. We understand ourselves a little better, being gentle as we see how complex, intelligent, and empathetic we truly are. It is this understanding of self, layered with all our other learnings, which helps us to dance with grief until it tires itself out.