Grief: Anticipation Anxiety

(Thirty-first in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

There is something about the rise of a full moon that I just love. I’m not sure why it holds such fascination for me, but it always has. I’m greedy about it – I wish we had a full moon every night, like we have the sun every day. When I was growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I loved anticipating the moon’s first peek as it came up over the mountains on the eastern edge of our valley, creating a silhouette of Thimble Peak. Then, it was as if the moon just popped up and suddenly the entire valley was bathed in moonlight. I loved walking in the desert under its light. The movie, Under the Same Moon, captures the beautiful thought that regardless of where we are in the world, we can look up and know we are under the same moon as those we love.

Anticipation can bring pleasure or anxiety as we are waiting for or pondering a future event. Expectation – like a child waiting for their birthday. But during the Covid Pandemic, there is a sense of anxiety from there being no known end in sight. The anticipation is open-ended and we are unable to plan ahead, which has caused instability in many areas: our health, jobs, housing, food supply. We may anticipate a not-so-good outcome and the future is not predictable or knowable. Not that any of our futures are predictable or knowable, but there are fairly reasonable assumptions we can make when life is close to “normal”.

Anticipatory Grief is the feeling of anxiety about an uncertain future, with unwanted events being the most likely outcome. When someone is terminally ill, they, and those close to them, live with the fact that they will die while no one knows precisely when. Or when there is a recession and companies lay-off workers and everyone wonders if they will be next. During a war, those who have loved ones fighting know that any day they could be told their loved one has died.

I believe that those of us who have a loved one in active addiction feel this too. Their lives aren’t normal. Their lives are high-risk. Their lives, and many times ours, are out of balance and dysfunctional. We don’t know that their future will be bad, but we can’t picture it turning out good. We may feel dread and loss of hope. The future is more uncertain than normal. This stress can be very unhealthy not only for us, but for the person who is addicted.

The professionals tell us that grief before death can be more difficult because it is not understood or discussed and there is usually more anger and lack of emotional stability due to the heightened state of anticipation. But unlike grieving before my sister died of terminal cancer, grieving on and off for years while my son was in and out of recovery did not provide an opportunity to reminisce together or say good-bye. Why would we talk about his dying when what we so desperately wanted was for him to live?

So, what can we do to regain a semblance of peace even while we may face the dreaded and impending death of a loved one?

Many of the suggestions I’ve read to help with anticipatory grief are similar to what we were taught in recovery classes with our son. To keep from going to the future worse-case-scenario, practice living in the present. Meditate, pray, remember and be thankful for specific things while you also honestly feel the pain. Let go of trying to control the situation. Keep up or establish healthy relationships where you can openly talk through your feelings.

Maybe the most important piece of advice for those who are caring for, and close to, a terminally ill loved one is to spend meaningful time together. Don’t avoid them because it’s difficult. In thinking about how this would look with a loved one who is addicted, I have regrets associated with this very thing and know that if I was given the gift of time to live just one month, or week, or even a day with my son before he died, I would have looked for ways to be with him. And if conversation would be difficult to maintain, just being quiet and together would do.

Author: Jude DiMeglio Trang

My husband, John, and I are parents of a young opiate addict who died of an accidental heroin overdose at 25. These are our credentials for writing and working towards reversing the exponentially rising statistics for opiate addiction and deaths in our country and the world.

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