As I have previously written about, I’m not just a poet who loves branding and haiku. Although I am currently in the “C-suite” as an executive/board advisor of multiple companies, many, many years ago I worked in the Death Care industry. Say what? The Death Care Industry? Yes, the Death Care Industry is one in which we were the gatekeepers of those that were recently departed. Death Care Industry professionals are entrusted with dealing with families before and after death, for a multiple of reasons. We were also required to identify and understand the many emotions of death, but one that was not as commonly talked about was “Anticipatory Grief.”
To me, the way I would define anticipatory grief is simply that you know that a death is going to occur, so the mourning process begins once death appears inevitable; however, death is a tricky subject as it could be a matter of minutes or it could be a matter of years once a diagnosis has occurred. I’ve also seen anticipatory grief in other situations as well, such as a child going off to college or an impending divorce. A loss is still a loss, perhaps just a loss of companionship or the loss of having a child at the dinner table.
Well yesterday my grandmother-in-law died at the age of 97 years old. Up until perhaps two-years ago, she lived on her own and would always walk over to my in-laws house despite the weather. There were many times when I would ask her if she wanted a ride home and she would say to me with a Russian-Yiddish accent, “Why?” She was the most self-less person I have met in my life, where the only things she asked for were pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She always made sure that anyone of us was fed and everything she made was spectacular.
Every holiday season we would look forward to Baba making her potato latkes, but for the holidays in 2014 she was unable to physically make our holiday tradition and this is when my – and perhaps other family members – began having anticipatory grief. Having gone through several medical school related classes, I’ve become pretty adept at self-diagnosing certain ailments, yet the mind is also very deceptive especially as the body is physically able to do fine. The mind begins to expect grief, in this case the eventual death, and we begin to prepare for the eventuality that death will occur.
So I’ve been mentally preparing myself for Baba’s death for about the past 18 months and I observed a woman who was tired, yet strong; weak, yet strong; happy, yet sad. But about three weeks ago I had the fortunate opportunity to “gran-sit” Baba for the day while my in-laws were off to a doctor appointment. While I was asking Baba if she needed anything, she now was only talking to me in a blend of Russian and Yiddish and it was hard for me to follow exactly what she was saying, but when I asked her how she’s doing she said, “I’m alive.” I could see it in her eyes that she knew she lead an amazingly long-life at 97 years, yet she was tired. I gave her a kiss on her cheek and I saw the biggest smile on her face.
Yesterday when we arrived at the hospital, I walked over to Baba in her bed and although her eyes were closed and she was breathing in oxygen, as I walked over to her my mother-in-law indicated that we were here to see Baba. I gave Baba the same kiss on her cheek and her eyes opened and she gave me that same infectious big smile, the same one she gave me about three weeks before. All of us knew that it was her time to say goodbye, as well as our time to say hello. I use to say, “Death is a celebration of life,” which is entirely true and tomorrow we will be celebrating the life of a wonderful woman although we have anticipated this event for some time.
When my father’s mom died nearly 20 years ago, my mother didn’t understand why it is that I couldn’t show any emotions leading up to the funeral or during the funeral. Most people who have never worked in the Death Care Industry simply don’t understand that “we” need to separate the emotional side of the “industry” so that it doesn’t personally effect our own emotions. I’ve known many industry participants that have become alcoholics, drug abusers, attempted suicide and successfully completed a suicide. Death is emotionally taxing, yet I knew that once I started bringing my emotions home, it was time to exit the industry.
Yet I grieve in a different way, which is behind closed doors. I still have all the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief“: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each of us works through Working these five stages and there is no timetable to get through our own emotions. Don’t rush this process. Trust me, for some it takes a lifetime to go through these stages, yet having had anticipatory grief for the past 18 months, perhaps this will enable myself to go through these processes perhaps faster than others.
Even once I’ve completed this process, it doesn’t mean I will ever forget an amazing person. She will always be a part of me, just like my father’s mom or any of my relatives or friends that are no longer with us today. So today, I’m celebrating death, not mourning death, for I know that is exactly Baba would have wanted. She would want us to remember her latkes, remember her independence and most importantly for me, remember her infectious smile.