Anticipatory Grief

The longer we live and the more we experience, the more we find ourselves in the cracks between joy and contentment on one side of life’s continuum and grief and loss on the other. Children leave our nests, we move from vocations to avocations — from retirement to, as a dear friend puts it, “re-aspirement.” Addresses, relationships, bodies, even spouses, can change. More loved ones get more serious diagnoses. Sometimes we get dreaded medical test results ourselves.

When someone dies, the loss seems clear. But what about those times when grief is anticipatory — when the diagnosis is terminal and we grieve the inevitable? Or times when the loss is ambiguous? Perhaps a parent shows signs of dementia, a son or daughter in the military is missing in action or returns from combat with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or a dear friend has a serious stroke. Maybe a loved one is in the throes of addiction. What was has changed, replaced by uncertainty.

When You Are Caught in ‘Frozen Grief’

University of Minnesota emeritus professor and family therapist Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss, calls this state of complicated loss “frozen grief.” A loved one might be physically present but psychologically absent, as in the case of Alzheimer’s or other mental disorders. Or he or she might be psychologically present (to us) but physically absent, as in the case of a child gone missing or a tragedy like 9/11 where many bodies were never recovered. More common situations like divorce, adoption or estrangement can also cause confusing feelings of ambiguous loss.

We are a society that doesn’t do well with ambiguity. We want clarity. We want steps to acceptance. We want closure — a concept that makes me want to tear my graying hair out! Grief is a messy process, and ambiguous loss even messier.

“My point is very different, that ambiguous loss is a complicated loss, which causes, therefore, complicated grief, but it is not pathological. . . it’s a pathological situation,” said Boss in a 2016 interview with Krista Tippett, host of Public Radio Exchange’s On Being.

Boss, and those in the therapeutic community who have embraced her ideas, give us permission to ride the waves of this type of loss without feeling pressured to “just move on,” as so many expect us to do. Instead of feeling alone in a state of “bewilderness,” we learn that the pangs of grief we have when someone is here — but not here — are normal.

Her Mom’s Wish

As I wrote in my recent book, Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving, a woman in my caregivers’ group beautifully described how it feels to ride this sea of rolling emotions: