At the young age of 61 my father was diagnosed with Stage IV base of the tongue cancer. Although he was cancer free for 7 years his body slowly deteriorated from the intense radiation damage. The radiation damage so fierce it was like watching Superman receive a dose of kryptonite. He was still my father but became a man who was dependent on my mother and could no longer take care of himself.
When hospice started coming around the first thing they do is bombard you with brochures. I was so deep in denial I convinced myself those brochures were for “other families.” In my head hospice was just there to “help out.” Along with a gigantic binder that discusses pretty much everything you need to know about death we received a brochure on “Anticipatory Grief.” I took one look at it and decided to save it for those “other families”. I remember handing it to my father’s nurse and saying, “Thanks but no one is dying here.” Thank goodness hospice employs the most compassionate human beings on the planet because she smiled and said, “Ok, but let’s leave it here if you decide to read it.”
My father tried his best to prepare us for his death. The week before he died we sat in his hospital room and he told me, “Lisa honey, I can’t do this anymore.” I knew what that meant and I begged him to not go. In between gut wrenching sobs I managed to remind him, “But I need you to balance my checkbook.” Nothing like some good old fashioned Italian guilt to keep someone alive. My father laughed and reminded me that I did my checking online. He then held my hand and told me, “You’re going to be fine, be strong and stay kind. You will always be my baby and I will always be with you.”
A week later my father died surrounded by family.
Days after my father’s death I was rummaging through papers on my parent’s kitchen counter and next to my father’s extensive collection of medications was the gigantic binder from hospice. Feeling extremely anxious, I decided to take a peek at all the handouts hospice gave us. I know what you’re thinking, but please understand for me accepting my father’s mortality was something I struggled with. It’s something I’m STILL struggling with. Right in the middle of what seemed like hundreds of papers was an explanation of “Anticipatory Grief” and how to handle it. I read it and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Defining Anticipatory Grief: Anticipatory grief is the name given to the tumultuous set of feelings and reactions that occur in some people who are expecting death in a loved one.
What? You mean hospice was right?
Anticipatory grief also has some symptoms that are distinct from normal grief. These signs include getting ready for what life will be like after the loved one is gone. As my father’s health grew more and more dismal I tried my best to prepare myself for his death. On one particular occasion I became so upset I had to pull over from driving because my tears and emotions so overwhelming. I remember feeling like I was drowning, I was sobbing so much I could barely catch my breath.
Below are the types of anticipatory grief I experienced:
- Sadness– there is no way around it, watching my father fight with every ounce of his being to survive made my heart heavy. I had no shortage on tears.
- Anger – I was enraged that my father was given this uncharted path in life. Towards the end of my father’s life I had to tune out anyone partaking in a fad diet. In my eyes, my father’s ability to eat was stolen and I could not understand fad diets. Food became the symbol of my father’s struggle. In so many ways it still is.
- Fear – I lived in constant fear of losing my father. Could I survive this? Was I strong enough?
- Fatigue – I tried to disguise my fatigue, but I was mentally exhausted. On numerous occasions I would see someone’s lips moving and I knew they were speaking to me, but I was too tired to listen. Think Charlie Brown teacher speaking.
- Anxiety– Each time my phone would ring my heart would race. I was petrified that my father would die and my mother would not be able to reach me. I began to sleep with my phone next to my pillow. My phone became an extension of my body. If I misplaced my phone for just a minute panic would set in.
As I reflect back, anticpatory grief makes sense. How could I not grieve in anticipation for the loss of the man who gave me life, the man who was my hero and my best friend? Throughout my father’s illness I would sit in a restaurant and mourn the man who could no longer enjoy a slice of pizza or toast a special occassion with our family. I would stare outside my parents window to the golf course and watch men my father’s age golfing and think to myself, “why my father?”
Many times tears would fill my eyes thinking of my Dad from back when he was strong and healthy.
My advice to you is if someone you love is terminally ill do NOT do what I did. I should have listened to the experts, or at the very least given them a chance. Accepting my anticipatory grief may have allowed me to prepare emotionally for my father’s death.