My Unfiltered Thoughts on Anticipatory Grief, the Purgatory Between Life and Death

Photo of Pathway Surrounded By Fir Trees
image courtesy of James Wheeler on

I won’t lie to you, this article won’t contain any empty platitudes or hollow sympathies. If you find any words of comfort here, know that they come from a place of sincere empathy, because my mother is dying, and I can’t stop it.

This is anticipatory grief.

Anticipatory grief isn’t the same as post-death grief. It is both a blessing and a curse, whereas grief is purely a curse to be overcome or killed by. The biggest perk of getting forewarning about a loved one’s death is that you know it’s coming. The biggest drawback is that you know it’s coming. Death is, while natural and a release from the pains and struggles and unending cruelty of life, really fucking hard. Unless the person was a truly evil person (and those are the ones who live the longest, it seems), their release from life leaves a hole that probably won’t ever heal. It will scab over at the edges, sure, and you’ll learn to live with the sound the wind makes through the cavity in your heart, but its never pretty. It’s not “good damage.” It doesn’t “make you stronger” or whatever other nonsense people try to give. It just hurts. Full stop.

And the grief that comes before the storm? According to various other articles on the internet, it doesn’t soften the blow. The one blessing it gives s that you can spend time with your loved one before the end comes. But there’s a strange morbidity that comes with doing that. You might end up having some pretty weird thoughts that might scare you. At once, you may want the end to hurry up and come so that it can be over with and you can get on with life after them, but at the same you may cling to the person you are about to lose with the grip strength of an astronaut holding onto their fellow astronaut dangling out the door of their space shuttle as a black hole is drawing closer.

I want you to know that you aren’t a bad person if those thoughts come. Wanting the band-aid to be ripped off so that you can continue on to the next part doesn’t make you cruel. It’s hard floating in that purgatory between life and death. At once, your loved one is still here with you and already gone.

Actually, there’s a story by Junji Ito that can be used to describe what it feels like to be going through pre-grief. In his story A Gentle Goodbye, there is a family with a pretty amazing supernatural power: using their collected memories, they make an “afterimage” of a person who has already died. The person is still dead, but the afterimage of them will stick around for a time in a physical, tangible form that will slowly fade away. This gives the family time to process the grief and to say goodbye slower.

That’s what anticipatory grief feels like. In many ways, we who are going through it are living with afterimages of the person we will lose. We have time to say goodbye–an irreplaceable, coveted treasure that we shouldn’t take for granted–and yet, by dragging the process out, the grief lasts longer. When that afterimage fades, there will be a new sadness that is far more painful than any other.

I want to offer some sort of comfort, but to have it come from a true place means that it won’t be as sweetened as the empty words of an advice article. I suppose the most comforting part about all of this is that strangers on the internet can be surprisingly compassionate when you tell them your loved one is dying. It comes with the risk of awful, dead-inside people harassing you, but talking about your grieving and sending it out into the ever-expanding universe made from lines of code and the collected experiences of billions of human beings can bring back a surprising result: hands that reach out to you, shoulders to cry on, ears to listen. It’s an odd phenomenon that almost makes you forget how cold and endlessly cruel humans are. In an instant, people you’ve never met want to help you. Grief is the universal sadness felt by (almost) everyone in the rawest form possible, and it reaches to the empty corners of our rotted souls and pulls out something at the core of Humanity:


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