Anticipatory grief isn’t new to me. I’ve studied it for years, written articles about it, and co-authored a book about it. That’s why I was surprised when I burst into tears sparked by anticipatory grief. The attack, if it can be called that, happened just before surgery.
For three months I experienced odd symptoms. Because I’m my disabled husband’s caregiver, I paid no attention to the symptoms until they couldn’t be ignored. Fortunately, I was able to get an appointment with my doctor and undergo tests. The question: Did I have uterine cancer? The question alone was enough to cause anticipatory grief, only this time it was for myself.
A surgical appointment was made for me. Things were getting serious and became more serious. My husband had just been dismissed from the hospital after treatment for pneumonia and pleurisy. The first day home he did fine. The second day home he was so weak he slid to the floor. I felt anticipatory grief for him. Where would he stay while I was in the hospital? My husband’s primary care physician was helpful and, with help from a social worker, my husband was given a room at a rehabilitation center. He would go there four days before my surgery.
The night before surgery, as were about to eat dinner, I turned to my husband and began, “Neither of us knows how long we will live. All we can do is cherish each other and savor every day. Although we will die alone, we won’t be alone, and will be surrounded by each other’s love.” I hugged my wheelchair-bound husband and sobbed. He hugged me back and sobbed to. So this is what acute anticipatory grief feels like, I thought to myself. Damn, it’s powerful. But we were glad we experienced anticipatory grief because it brought us even closer together.
As I was wheeled into surgery I felt my husband’s love. The surgery took more than four hours and I spent four hours in the recovery room. When I awakened I saw smiling family members and they were giving me “thumbs up.” It turned out I had stage one uterine cancer, had surgery for it, and needed no additional treatment. Anticipatory grief–a feeling of loss before a death or dreaded event happens–is extremely painful. Yet this form of grief can be beneficial. The anticipatory grief I felt before surgery taught me, again, about the preciousness of love and life.