Helping a Good Friend Cope with Anticipatory Grief – Dos & Donts
From personal experience and speaking to others who are experiencing mourning before the death of a loved one, here are my thoughts on ways to help your good friend deal with anticipatory grief. Continue reading.
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What is Anticipatory Grief?
Anticipatory grief is the mourning period one experiences before the death of a loved one.
Often, that death is prompted by a life-threatening illness or terminal diagnosis.
Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, a neuroscientist and psychologist in Tucson, Arizona, adds that ‘anticipatory grief is feeling grief from the knowledge that a loved one is dying…imagining it so vividly that you feel that grief now.’
I always associated grief with a feeling that happened after death. It was not until I had to prepare for the loss of a loved one that I knew that it was possible to grieve for someone while preparing for the end of their life.
How is Anticipatory Grief Different From Conventional Grief?
While there are some similarities shared between conventional grief (when the person has died) and anticipatory grief – there are some attributes unique to anticipatory grief. For instance, with the terminal illness of a loved one anticipatory grief can be laced with some element of hope that the disease can be controlled, so that they have more time to be alive.
This hope in turn directly feeds into the rollercoaster wave of emotions that anticipatory grief brings. Some days that hope can bring on some pretty good days, and then there are times you can feel so low that not even a power shovel can excavate you out of your pit of doom and gloom.
The Relationship Between Friendship and Anticipatory Grief
First things first, I was surprised at the disparity online between articles that define anticipatory grief/how best to handle it if you are experiencing it and articles that give insight on how to support someone in your life (for e.g. a close friend) that’s preparing for the loss of their loved one.
Good friends are people you’ve known for a decent amount of time. Often, you’ve experienced both joyful and difficult times together. Anticipatory grief is a tough time, and if you have a close friend who is going through it, depending on the nature of the friendship, expectations, and the like – it is bound to have an impact on your life as well.
Helping a Good Friend Deal with Anticipatory Grief – Dos
Before I kick this off, I should stress that there is no winning formula on how to give a good friend the best support when they are going through the motions of anticipatory grief. For me coping and caring for a loved one with a terminal illness has been a sharp learning curve and I’m still not done trying to optimize how I approach this time of my life inwardly and outwardly. So far, what has really helped me is growing my knowledge from talking to friends going through something similar, reading relevant articles online, and getting mental health support.
That’s why I feel compelled to share my life experiences and fashion them in a way that gives ideas to those who don’t know where to start or are struggling with how to help their close friend prepare for the loss of someone they care for deeply.
Do The Work
While it’s thoughtful to ask your good friend how you can help them cope with anticipatory grief. From experience of being the recipient of such a question, after a few times, it can get exhausting because the onus is put on you to work out what’s best for you. Sometimes while you are experiencing the low point of the rollercoaster nature of anticipatory grief, you are not in the best place to speak about what could make you feel better.
So, I would advise mixing it up – that is, ask your mate how you can help them feel better and sometimes give ideas based on what you already know about him/her.
For example, I have a good friend who knows that for years, I’ve wanted to makeover my little flat, and because he knows I love and trust his taste, he has mapped out a revamp interior design plan which I plan to follow to the T. And not only that, he is working with me in choosing the furniture that aligns with his fab vision aaaand he’s helping me to assemble it. This mini interior design project has given me something positive to look forward to, during a time when happy moments are harder to find.
Do Set Expectations
Helping a close friend through anticipatory grief is a lot of hard work, so before you offer to help – do an honest self-check and decide whether you have the spiritual, mental, and physical bandwidth to support your friend. If you don’t, this is something you ought to communicate, so that expectations are set and defined from the get-go.
This process is not alway straightforward. I once experienced trying to comfort a good friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. It was during a time when I was going through my own personal challenges (which I had already shared with the person)and when I realised I couldn’t follow through on specific activities they had requested – I communicated this with the person. In that instance, my needs were not met and this resulted in me sacrificing my own mental health to support someone else. What I’ve taken from this is to be stronger in protecting my boundaries.
Another thing about setting expectations with good friends when it comes to helping them deal with anticipatory grief is that life happens. Meaning, if at the start of learning what your friend is going through you can be their rock and then, later on, find yourself unable to – it’s much better to have that honest conversation with your mate than pull back and retreat because of guilt. Or an unwillingness to have a difficult conversation. Or fear.
One thing I have found out during my anticipatory grief experience is that people’s desire to avoid difficult, awkward or painful interactions with friends can sometimes override doing what is kind.
Do Switch It Up
By that I mean, alternate the different ways you check in with your mate. It’s only natural that if your friend is going through anticipatory grief that you will want to ask them how they are coping.
I personally find that it helps mentally and spiritually when these types of interactions are balanced with exchanges that are more lighthearted. Going through anticipatory grief can feel like Groundhog Day movie, where all you wish you could do is just press Stop and Rewind to happier times, but you can’t. That’s why it’s great when a good mate can be that beacon of light.
For example, over a weekend, a close friend of mine took me on a virtual trip to Miami. That is, she was in Miami for her sibling’s MASSIVE milestone birthday bash and via WhatsApp she shared content with me so I could experience the whole extravaganz-A! I was treated to the 3-day themed outfits she wore, her family celebrating, the dancing, the live performances…and I LIIIIIVED for it. Each day, I couldn’t wait to get the next instalment because I was so happy for her and it took my mind away from my problems.
Helping a Good Friend Deal with Anticipatory Grief – Donts
Don’t Use Social Media to Guage Your Friend’s’ Wellbeing
I have one word to say here ‘tWitch’. If you are active on social media, you would have heard of Stephen Boss – aka tWitch, the mega-talented artist who had many accolades to his name including being a judge on the iconic TV dance show SYTUCD (where he had previously been a contestant) and guest DJ’n for Ellen Degeneres’s TV show.
As well as this, he delighted the world with his super cheerful attitude which could be seen in his countless family dance videos. And then in December 2022, he committed suicide.
MyFashionSlashLife serves a professional and creative purpose. And yet, I’ve had many instances of friends assuming they know how I’m doing during this time by my social media posts. The narrative is often ‘Well, I saw you doing ABC and assumed you were fine because, after all, you were doing ABC’.
This is so dangerous on many levels – social media is not the barometer to ascertain how your friend is doing or what is going on in their life. Can it share some insight? Sure! After all, the way we choose to communicate with the world e.g. via words, video etc, does say something about us. But when it comes to forming a conclusion about a friend that you then act upon, from my experience, it is best to take the time to reach out to that friend and find out how they are. And when you do, do it in an intentional and honest way.
Don’t Dishonour or Disrespect The Dying
In my opinion, as long as a good friend has not severely put you in harm’s way – regardless of what is going on between the two of you – if you find out that their loved one is in a critical condition and not only have you had direct interaction with the person who is soon to pass, but within that exchange – the person showed you kindness by giving you help or support, have enough morality to reach out in an intentional manner to honour that gesture.
The same goes for when you and your good friend are going through a rocky patch and you learn that their loved one has passed.
Many, many years ago when a (former) close friend’s loved one passed away, we were not on speaking terms. Because we had a mutual friend, I was able to get the funeral details so I could attend to pay my respects. At the time, I had severe financial constraints and had to ask my father for money to make the trip from Berlin to the UK. When he gave me the money he asked, ‘Would this friend do the same for you?’ I didn’t respond to that because for me – regardless of the future, I was going to honour how lovely and kind the friend’s relative had been to me when they were alive.
Don’t Go Ghost
A psychologist once shared an experience they had with a good friend they had known for about 10 years. The last interaction they ever had was when they called ‘said good friend’ to tell them that their husband had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. After that, the psychologist never heard from that friend again.
I too have experienced this. I have shared with a good friend that I am going through anticipatory grief and never heard from them again. As I’ve already written extensively about how to handle being ghosted by a good friend, I have nothing more to add here.
Don’t Play Make-Believe
There are the friends that go ghost once they learn you are going through anticipatory grief and then there are the ones that still stay in touch with you but never make mention of what you are going through. It’s a strange game of make-believe.
Make-believe can be described as a state of mind in which you make up a new reality mostly because it is more pleasant than the actual one. In this case, I have people who know that I am going through anticipatory grief, and are aware of the sick person I am referring to. Yet for months, for reasons known best by them, they have refused to ask specifically how I’m doing in relation to coping with anticipatory grief or how the sick person is doing. Instead, they deliberately direct the conversation to more banal topics.
Who knows why some people do this? Could a narcissistic ego be at play? Perhaps they are going through something so atrocious, they feel they cannot communicate what it is. Maybe it’s just easier (for them) to pretend that everything is tickety-boo. Or as my mental health consultant said on this topic – they could just be ‘assholes’. Another reason could stem from the fear of believing that acknowledgement could lead to the (unwanted) responsibility and hard work of having to look after their friend.
The latter is extremely presumptuous. Speaking for myself, despite the good friends I have in Berlin and around the globe, during this time I have been intentionally selective in choosing the people who I believe can handle me plough through anticipatory grief.
That is to say – what I personally want from all my good friends is to have the kindness and morality to acknowledge what I am going through. Beyond that, I don’t actively look for support from all my close friends – instead, I turn to the ‘Grief Army’ I put together (with their consent) and my immediate family.
And there it is…
There it is folks. This topic is a minefield and my recommendations are not a one-size-fits-all kinda thing. Rather, I hope that in some way my experiences can give some insight to people who have good friends going through anticipatory grief.
I’d also like to hear from any of you out there who are dealing with the soon-to-be passing of a loved one. How have your close friends supported you during this difficult time?