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Making Peace with a Loved One's Imminent Death

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Learning that a loved one’s death is imminent can be very difficult. There are many different sorts of emotions and thoughts that may be triggered by hearing about the impending death of a loved one. Not all the thoughts and emotions you may experience will make sense or fit well together, but they are all valid and important experiences. For example, learning that a loved one is dying after a prolonged bout of illness may cause grief, sorrow, and also a sense of relief that the person’s battle is coming to an end. In contrast, learning that a child is dying may cause a sense of anger, desperation, and unfairness.

You may find yourself experiencing some of the reactions predicted by the theory of Kubler Ross described previously in the section on Dealing With Your Own Imminent Death. For example, you may initially deny that that the impending death of your loved one is really happening, or try to bargain with your higher power to give your loved one more time before death. You may also experience what some people refer to as "anticipatory grief," a grief reaction that occurs prior to an impending loss.

Anticipatory grief can include many of the same symptoms as "traditional" grief after a loss. The most common components of an anticipatory grief reaction include: depression (mood, appetite and sleep changes), heightened concern for the dying person, rehearsal of the death, and attempts to adjust to the consequences of the death.

Just as there is no correct way to grieve after someone dies, there is no correct way to work through anticipatory grief (nor do you necessarily have to experience anticipatory grief at all). Depending on your coping style, your personality, previous experience with death and dying, your relationship with the person who is dying, and how much advance notice you have, grief emotions may vary in their intensity and how much they impact your ability to function.

Additional information on grief will be presented at the end of this paper. A more detailed discussion of this topic can also be found at our article on Grief and Bereavement Issues.