real life

'A dress rehearsal for loss.' The reality of living with anticipatory grief.

As a kid, I used to imagine my parents dying. 

There’d be a multi-car pileup on the way back from dinner, I was sure. They’d just never come home.

I’d pace the hall and press my face up against the windows, waiting for them. When headlights came into view, I’d hold my breath - and my stomach would sink when they didn't turn into our driveway. 

My babysitter tried to calm my nerves - "Why don’t you come watch cartoons with me?" - but how anyone could watch cartoons at a time like that was beyond me. 

"They'll come home soon!" she'd promise, as the lump in my throat would expand. 

"But what if they don't?"

With age, I grew out of my little habit of imagining those screams as the family Subaru burst into flames. But my fear of losing loved ones never went away.

Watch: What is complicated grief? Story continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

The year I turned 22, I found out that two people very close to me had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer. I think it goes without saying I did not take it well.


Since then, they’ve endured countless doctor’s appointments, radiation and surgeries. All with unbelievable courage and strength. Through it all, we’ve tried to retain a sense of normalcy and enjoy the little moments like we did before. But when someone you love is sick, those innocent moments disappear.

It’s Sunday evening and you’re playing cards. Looking around the room, a bittersweet smile creeps across your face and suddenly, it’s a moment. Birthdays aren't just birthdays anymore - they’re the memories that future-you will cling to. Photos on Christmas morning take on new weight when you imagine them blown up on the projector screen at the funeral. 

Grieving the loss of an imagined future, never really in the present. For months I found myself in this in-between place; a sort of dress rehearsal for loss.

It was a process. One that shifted day to day, sometimes hour to hour. Denial, acceptance, anger, hope. The emotional back and forth had me living in fight or flight, and that’s when things got whacky. I convinced myself that my anticipatory grieving was somehow willing them to die (yes - really.) Maybe if I focused on positive thoughts, they’d get better? Despite my best efforts, I was trapped on an emotional rollercoaster.

It was during one of these emotional loop-de-loops that I went to dinner with a friend who had lost his mother. We sipped Aperols and talked about death. "I just can’t stop thinking about all the things they’re going to miss, how hard it will be on us," I told him. 

"I’m driving myself crazy - it’s all I think about."


He let me finish and set down his glass. "You’ll have time for all this when it actually happens," he said. "Trust me, you’ll have all the time in the world. But that’s not now. It’s okay now."

It sounds so simple, but at that point in my life, it was exactly what I needed to hear. "It’s okay now" helped stop the endless spiralling and the list of 'what if’s' that played on a loop in my head. It gave me the space to accept the situation, as much as I hated it.

Listen to Fill My Cup. On this episode, Allira helps us overcome affirmation anxiety and shares how you can make them work for you. Story continues after podcast.

Losing someone you love hurts. And it’s a special kind of hurt when you know it’s coming. But making room for that pain and being grateful for the time we have together has allowed me to access a whole new level of appreciation for my loved ones.

I’m finally able to be present for them like they deserve. We have a closeness that some people will never be lucky enough to experience - a closeness that wasn't really there before they got sick.

I’ve learnt that when you’re in a situation in which you can no longer hope for recovery, you just hope for meaningful time together, and that doesn't mean you’re giving up. The truth is, it’s possible to live while both holding on and letting go.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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