I was talking with a friend recently and she was telling me about how her mother died when she was seven years old and her mother was 34. We talked about the very real physiological response to grief and loss that took her by surprise when she herself turned 34 and how her body and spirit felt under threat that year. I have heard that from many clients: their husband’s father died at 62 and suddenly as the husband approached 62 himself, developed cardiac symptoms. It could be genetic, or it could be the body processing grief and stress subconsciously, or both. Most do not even make the conscious connection until someone else points it out. It is nevertheless a real experience that involves the body demanding that you process your unresolved grief. The same friend whose mother died understood that at age 34, but was wholly unprepared for the blind-sided recurrence of anxiety and physiological response when her own daughter turned seven. There was this deeply hidden fear of something happening to her and the daughter being left motherless at the age of seven, just as she was. For those who have not experienced a loss at a young age or a parent dying “prematurely”, it sounds like a ghost story or mental illness. But for those who have gone through it, it is real and can have genuine physical health consequences. It can be around an anniversary, like “broken heart syndrome”, or around the holidays. Be aware of what is going on inside you and look for signs of unresolved grief in those around you, especially if they themselves are not the best at listening to their own hearts.
The other end of this weird psychic spectrum is what I call anticipatory grief. It is what I went through with my father’s Parkinson’s, it is what many cancer patients and their families struggle with, it is the very crux of the heartache of being an Alzheimer’s caregiver. It is experiencing “small” but significant losses as the person changes or declines or in some cases gives up fighting for themselves, as well as bracing yourself for a huge eventual loss that feels both inevitable and shameful to accept because it requires giving up hope. Holding hope and grief in tension is an impossible task. This is why we end up on an emotional roller coaster and those around us never know the right thing to say or do. And so the right answer is to listen, not judge. The right answer is love us where we are and know it is not a decision, and we are not beholden to stay in that space. The right answer is to be a safe person who recognizes you caught us at a moment in time where we are feeling and expressing what we are feeling, whether that is hope, despair, or something else entirely. Sometimes we cannot do that with the people who are closest because it feels like we are committing to one side of the hope fence or the other. In those situations, call a counselor, call Grief Share, call a death doula, call Family Link, but call SOMEONE. Whether you are the person who is sick or the caregiver, the roller coaster is different and real and exhausting. Do not ride alone.
I bring all of this up because the holidays this year will look different for many families. Depression and hopelessness is crouching at many a door. There will not be the parties and gatherings to distract us from our own thoughts like most holiday seasons. A quarter of a million families have lost loved ones this year that often did not get an opportunity to say a final goodbye as they would have wanted, at the time or even in terms of memorial services. Those who have loved ones who are suffering terminal illnesses or have significant immunity compromise, live in fear of the virus that could kill them before they have a chance to suffer through treatment. And those who cannot hope because of unresolved grief that is breaking their hearts or anticipatory grief that feels like a foregone conclusion to ultimate grief are drowning and need the courage, even if it is vicarious, to reach out for a lifeline before they go under one last time.
Anita is the founder of Family Link and wants to share with you some tools and thoughts to help you with the complex responsibility of managing the care of aging loved ones while still managing the other aspects of your life.