One of the biggest misconceptions about grief is that it always starts after our loved one has passed away. In reality, grief can start earlier, when we learn that our loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is called anticipatory grief and dealing with it can be quite difficult, especially considering that you have to navigate tough emotions while at the same time making practical arrangements.
Learning that a friend or family member doesn’t have much to live can come as a shock and make you experience the same emotions as with normal grief. That means you can go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but this form of grieving actually classifies as complicated grief because of the sense of uncertainty, powerlessness, and impending loneliness it comes with. Anticipatory grief can also be harder to deal with because its symptoms start to unfold before our loved one has passed away.
It’s not uncommon for friends and relatives to want to achieve too much, too soon, when they learn that someone they love was diagnosed with a terminal illness. But while this instinct is normal and stems from love, remember that there’s only one thing you must do for them: listen.
Remember that they’re dealing with a lot too. They may be in denial, they may feel overwhelmed by uncertainty, and they may be scared. Encourage them to talk about their feelings, their most beautiful memories, and show them that you can support them without being judgemental or alarmed. If they choose not to open up to you, don’t pressure them. Approach the topic gently and be compassionate. They may not want to burden you with their feelings or they may not feel comfortable expressing their feelings. In this case, you can refer them to a professional therapist who can offer them emotional support.
As for practical arrangements, it very much depends, so be mindful. Some people find peace and control in planning the legal and administrative matters following their death, others don’t want to have the rest of the family involved and prefer to enjoy the rest of the time they have together in a pleasant way.
How to look after yourself
As understandable as it might be to think only of your loved one at a time like this and focus on their needs, remember that you shouldn’t neglect yourself either. Your wellbeing matters, so try to stick to healthy nutrition and exercise and take pleasure in your hobbies. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms in particular (smoking, drinking, gambling) because they don’t help you reach inner peace in the long run. And, as shocking as the diagnosis might seem, try to use the remaining time you have together to work through your feelings, close loose ends, and say goodbye.