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Family Caregiving and Anticipatory Grief

In the waning stages of a loved one’s life, it can be a very difficult situation for everyone, including the family caregiver. The anticipation of a death of a loved one is often as traumatic as the actual passing. These are sometimes life-changing experiences. If you are the primary caregiver of someone you love, the experience can affect every aspect of your life for days, months or forever. It is natural to grieve the death of a loved one before, during and after the actual time of their passing. The ability to deal with this devastating fact is what grieving is all about. If someone has had a prolonged illness or serious memory impairment, family members may begin grieving the loss of the person’s “former self” long before the time of death. This is sometimes referred to as “anticipatory grief.”

Anticipating the loss can be just as painful as losing a life. Experiencing guilt or shame for “wishing it were over” or seeing a loved one as already “gone” intellectually is normal. Ultimately, anticipatory grief is a way to prepare us emotionally for the inevitable. Preparing for the death of a loved one can allow family members to clear unresolved issues and seek out support of spiritual advisors, family and friends. Also, this can be a time to figure out your loved one’s wishes for burial and funeral arrangements. Here are some tell-tale signs of grief and tips for helping those dealing with grief, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Symptoms of grief Physical These include low energy or exhaustion along with headaches or an upset stomach. Some caregivers may sleep more than usual, while others may push themselves to extremes at work. These activities may make you more prone to illness. It is important to take care of yourself by maintaining a proper diet, exercise and rest. Taking care of your body can help your overall health.

Emotional These can include memory gaps, preoccupation, irritability, depression, euphoria, wailing rages and passive resignation. Some caregivers identify strongly with their loved one and his or her feelings. It is important not to judge yourself too harshly as you experience conflicting and overwhelming emotions. A trained counselor, support group or trusted friend can help you sort through feelings such as anxiety, loss, anger, guilt and sadness. If depression or anxiety persist, a doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressant drugs to help alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

Spirituality You may feel closer to God and more religious than ever before. Conversely, many caregivers dealing with their loved one’s impending passing are outraged with God. You may even feel cut off from your soul altogether, a temporary paralysis of the spirit. A member of the clergy or spiritual advisor can help you examine the feelings you are experiencing. Learning to deal with anticipatory grief or any kind of grief is taking back your life.

Tips for helping the a bereaved caregiver

  • Be available.
  • Listen without giving advice.
  • Do not offer stories of your own.
  • Allow the grieving person to use expressions of anger or bitterness, including such expressions against God.
  • Realize that no one can replace or undo the loved one’s impending passing. Allow him or her to feel the pain.
  • Be patient, kind and understanding without being patronizing.
  • Don’t force the caregiver to share feelings if he or she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so.
  • Physical and emotional touches can bring great comfort to the grieving caregiver. A hug or touch of the hand are appropriate gestures.
  • Be there later, when friends and family have all gone back to their routines.
  • Remember holidays, birthdays and anniversaries which have important meaning for the caregiver. Offer support during this time. Don’t be afraid of reminding the caregiver of the loss. It is already on his or her mind.
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