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Grief-Prep: How to Actually "Pre-Grieve"
Ways to manage this complex emotion that's completely normal even if it feels terrible
I learned last week that my 83-year-old Puerto Rican father has a DNR order. That stands for Do Not Resuscitate, which means if he were to slip into a coma or cease having meaningful life functions, he doesn’t want to remain alive by artificial means.
I was not prepared to hear this news. Color me shocked.😱
He explained this all very rationally. Intellectually, it made perfect sense. Emotionally…well, that’s another story.
Emotions are super complex and powerful. Sometimes they feel uncontrollable, even though they’re a direct reaction to our thoughts or even an unconscious process. An emotion like grief can be overwhelming. And trying to ignore it or bury it to be dealt with later isn’t healthy.
If you watched HBO’s Succession, you know the youngest son Roman Roy declared that he “pre-grieved” his father’s death. Despite the title of this post, pre-grief isn’t real but anticipatory grief is. It’s usually tied to knowing the end is coming, such as when given a terminal diagnosis.
What Roman got wrong about pre-grieving was that he didn’t actually anticipate his father’s death at all, because none of them really believed that their dad would die. Especially after overcoming a hemorrhagic stroke—or maybe because he overcame it.
But how many of us are actually prepared to lose a parent?
Unlike Logan Roy, my father didn’t expire en route to Sweden on his private jet last week. (My father might be a lot of things, but a morally bankrupt billionaire isn’t one of them, so there’s no private jet.) His heart gave him a run for his money, but things are looking up. 🙂
For a while, I vacillated between anger and denial. This is the natural cycle of grief.
To deal with it, I kept hearing the saying “not my circus, not my monkeys” looping in my head. Except I AM one of his monkeys. And that familial bond is hard to sever, no matter how complicated they can become.
As an aside, there’s an LVMC episode brewing with guest Dra. Mildred Ortiz (I recommended her podcast earlier this month) in which she’ll walk us through setting boundaries with family. Boundaries, as I’ve mentioned, are an amazing tool to have in your arsenal.
Like most things, managing grief means being prepared for it. In other words, it starts with how you behave and live your life BEFORE you encounter a grief-inducing event (hint: not like Roman Roy did it).
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What is Grief?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, grief is the experience of coping with loss. It’s not limited to death and bereavement, but anything that disrupts our sense of normalcy. We can even grieve our own expectations when life doesn’t turn out as planned.
The Mayo Clinic describes grief as a strong and sometimes overwhelming emotion, but a natural one at that. Which is to say that we shouldn’t feel ashamed for experiencing grief, and that there is no one right way to deal with it.
For some people it evaporates pretty quickly, for others it can last for a long time. And the inciting event (whether as critical as a death or a terminal diagnosis) won’t necessarily correlate with how deeply one grieves or how quickly one heals.
Grief can also look like a lot of different secondary emotions: anger, fear, anxiety, hurt. It can cause us to become avoidant, or swing the opposite way and become reckless. While there is no one way that grief will present itself, there are healthy ways to manage it.
More on grief:
Resources for Dealing with Grief
Therapy is a start. Though it might not be a feasible option for everyone, if it’s available to you it’s worth taking advantage of it.
To complement therapy, or tide you over until you’re able to engage in it, there are these resources. I cobbled this list together the first time I went through a health scare with a parent. Originally published in June 2019, I’ve refined and updated it with new alternatives for 2023.
Practicing Gratitude: How Gratitude Builds Fortitude During the Storms of Life
This perspective-shifting post analyzes how gratitude can help relieve stress, even the raw, emotionally-depleting kind like grief. The article also includes a link to 25 suggestions for practicing gratitude from the personal (like meditating or dancing in your bedroom) to the outwardly-focused (like complimenting a stranger and volunteering).
This article by Robert Emmons, the “world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, reveals why gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds, and our relationships.”
From the article:
You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time. They’re incompatible feelings. If you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for having something that you don’t.
The perspective shift that can happen between a negative and positive emotion can take practice. Which is why it’s called a gratitude practice, right?
This is a good list for supporting a loved one when they’re the ones in the grief process. I included this because sooner or later we all know someone who will need this kind of comfort, even if it isn’t us directly (yet).
Grief has a way of radiating out beyond ourselves, like a stone sinking in water. If you’re a boat caught in the ripple effect, you can use this list to anchor and pull up the one who is sinking.
At the very least it might help eliminate the feelings of helplessness and even the awkwardness of not knowing what to do or say to someone grieving.
Of course, once you’re in the throes of grief or even just run-of-the-mill stress, it’s nice to have some tools. This list also includes the type of things you can do every day as simple self-care.
I’ve also covered self-care in abundance on La Vida Más Chévere:
7 Hacks for Holiday Stress (mini bonus episode)
How to Show Up for Yourself (mini bonus episode)
Small Ways to Manage Overwhelm (mini bonus episode)
Planning for the Inevitable
Not to be glib, but the truth is that we’re all going to die. If we’re lucky, it won’t be until late in life and without much suffering. But the truth is anyone can get hit by a bus tomorrow. Lakes and Lattes turned me on to how the late Steve Jobs approached this finality.
This is the transcript from his infamous 2005 commencement address at Stanford (link includes video):
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
My takeaway from this speech is that what’s truly important is squeezing every drop of life out as long as we can. And because I was a Girl Scout, I aim to be prepared by making arrangements for the inevitable.
Instead of putting it off until it’s too late, get your documentation in order now. The podcast Death in the Afternoon explored this very topic. On the Get Your Sh*t Together episode, they interviewed Chanel Reynolds who lost her husband in a bike riding accident (and later wrote a book by the same name as the episode). Chanel and her husband HAD done all their paperwork…it just wasn’t signed.
Something she said in the episode stuck with me, so I’ve transcribed it here (emphasis mine):
It was hard enough for me to be in the room and understand what the doctors were saying…and then I had this growing pile of additional optional increasing suffering and worries that…added so much extra suffering onto this situation that was already excruciating.
By preparing ahead of time, you can’t at the very least avoid this one extra layer of hurt. The author Chanel also has a website with some checklists for getting your end-of-life shit together.
How Grief Manifests
As mentioned above, grief takes numerous forms, varies wildly person to person, and can spark additional emotions. Common physical symptoms include aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, dry mouth, lack of energy.
This week I’ve been unable to eat or sleep. I lost weight and have a constant stomach ache. It’s not fun.
Some people sleep a lot. Others need to burn off excess energy. Some cry, others scream.
As I’m writing this, I’m still in the grief process. I have moments when I find it hard to breathe. With the move to my father’s homeland looming, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay to live my life on my own terms, even if it feels like a betrayal to leave right now.
It’s a struggle.
But I have to remember (once again) that I can’t control everything. Whether or not my father fully recuperates isn’t up to me. He’s convinced he’ll live at least another 10 years into his 90s. I hope so, even if he has few vices left to enjoy. That’s a really great attitude for him to have!
Now that I think about it, he’s probably practicing some sort of grief management and gratitude on his own.🤔
How to Pre-Grieve Properly
Grief is normal. Loss is a natural part of the human experience so we’ll all experience it at some point in our lives. Whether it’s something as low stakes as losing a game of dominoes or as heavy as losing a loved one, the grief will be real.
Grief will hurt, maybe even in surprising ways, no matter how much grief-prep we do. That’s not to say it’s all for naught.
What pre-grieving is then is living a life of gratitude. It’s making self-care a habit. It’s having a healthy perspective. It’s knowing who and what deserves your mental and physical energy, what deserves your emotional labor. To echo Steve Jobs, it’s focusing only on “what is truly important,” including your end-of-life documents.
All of that is what prepares us for the inevitable. No one escapes grief, so you might as well get your pre-grief on now.
How do you deal with grief? What about just run of the mill stress? Leave your tips in the comments, and thanks for reading.
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