I Knew My Mom Was Going to Die. That Didn’t Make The Loss Any Easier.
Anticipating someone’s death isn’t the same as actually grieving it.
I was 1,300 miles away from home when I found out my mom died. Motivated by the freedom that came with college graduation, I’d moved across the country from Minnesota to Texas for an internship. My mom and I hadn’t been in much contact for a few months, since my therapist encouraged me to set a healthy boundary in what I had recently realized was a toxic relationship. Still, when my aunt’s name lit up my phone in my dark bedroom, I knew. It was the phone call that would confirm what I had known for most of my life: my mom, who suffered from mental and physical illness, in addition to an opioid addiction, had died.
“It’s your mom,” my aunt said. I breathed in. “She passed away. Can you fly home tomorrow?”
I exhaled what felt like the first real breath after years of anticipation. There I was, facing the loss I had been dreading for so long; no longer would I have to wonder when the inevitable would disjoint my life. Of course, I was devastated — and I immediately struggled with guilt for having all but cut my mom out of my life shortly before she passed away.
But I couldn’t help but notice my mom’s death felt more like the beginning of a new epoch in my life than the end of one. I could finally move on from “pre-grieving” — what grief experts call “anticipatory grief” — and start the process of “real” grief. I was ready to live without my mom and all the ways her addiction complicated my life, because I had two decades of preparation. I envisioned it like grief stretched out over time and, as a result, made less potent. The hard work was already done — or so I thought.
Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D, professor emerita at Indiana University’s School of Public Health and fellow in Thanatology for the Association for Death Education and Counseling, says grief is never that simple — grief is neither linear nor one-dimensional. And anticipatory grief isn’t necessarily the “fast pass” through the grieving process I assumed it was; in many cases, it actually makes the process more complex.
“It’s common for people to think anticipatory grief is like preparation that gets you ready for the actual loss,” Gilbert says. “But loss is so complicated, and so many emotions get played out. For some people, anticipated loss can be as devastating as if they had absolutely no warning.”
It may be true that, initially, someone’s death may less shocking if you’re expecting it, or it you had time to process it in advance. Sudden loss — like losing a loved to a car accident or heart attack — blindsides us, leaving us with endless regrets and questions. But anticipatory grief comes with its own complicating factors.
While I assumed that living with my mom’s illness and addiction prepared me for her death, knowing someone is going to die doesn’t mean you’ve actually grieved the loss ahead of time. I was too busy dealing with the reality of my mom’s addiction right in front of me to deeply engage with what was happening beneath the surface, especially since I didn’t have an adult I trusted to name what was happening and support me through it. Whether I was chauffeuring her to and from the hospital or taking responsibility around the house while she spent days on end in bed, I gave a good portion of my adolescence to mom’s mental and physical illness, which left me little opportunity to actually face the truth that I was losing my mom.
VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of Stanford Palliative Care Education and Training Program, says that for those who don’t have a support system — especially those who play the role of comforter themselves — anticipatory grief can be especially confusing.
“Sometimes when a family member is profoundly grieving, the patient might find themselves in a role of comforting a family member about their own death,” she says. “In a healthy coping diad, the roles of comforting and grieving should be shared.”
The dynamic of relational and personal strain that come from living with, and taking care of, someone while they’re dying adds another layer of grief. Many anticipatory grief scenarios, since they often involve extended illness or end-of-life care, involve some kind of caretaking responsibility, which is relieved when a loved one passes away. The bereaved, like I did, often experience a sense of relief and freedom when their loved one dies. But this sense of relief often parlays into a spiral of guilt and shame, which compound the grieving process.
Periyakoil says this cocktail of relief is common for caretakers, who are typically emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted when their loved ones pass away. “It’s unsustainable to hold yourself in grief mode for extended, indefinite periods of time, no matter how deep your commitment to that person is,” she says. “When the burden is lifted, you start to enjoy freedom, until you start to think you’re an awful person for enjoying life after loss.”
I began to experience a different mixture of relief and sadness a few months after my mom’s funeral, once I settled back into my routine. I noticed that since she was gone, I could move forward emotionally without worrying about her addiction or her mental health impacting my life. But her death also served as a difficult reminder that things would never be different between us. I would always be the daughter of an addicted mother, and she would always be the mom who, without meaning to, stole years from my childhood. Anticipatory grief could never have prepared me for this loss: the loss of hope.
“When someone dies, you lose their physical being in your life. But there are so many other aspects of our lives that are tied up in our relationships, and with death, you lose the ability to progress. You lose the promise that something could have been different,” Gilbert says.
It’s been almost 10 years since my mom’s death, and, without regard for the 10 years I spent “pre-grieving,” poignant, little losses still surface in my life daily. Milestones like my wedding, the birth of my two children, and Mother’s Day are painful reminders of my mom’s absence in my life — and there are many days I feel like I just need a mom. But as much as loss took from me, it also gave to me: Because of what I experienced, I discovered at my core compassion, empathy, and resilience — all of which serve me today.
The loss of my childhood and, later, the physical loss of my mom, shattered many parts of my life. But when I pick up the pieces, I see myself in them in a whole new way. Periyakoil compares losing a loved one to getting a CT scan of your psyche: “You learn things about yourself you’re astounded by: You had an opportunity to serve. You’re resilient. You made it through.”