The Art of Pre-Grieving

Aug 29, 2012

The art of pre-grieving is one I learned from my dad. Because he was afraid to die.

My dad was 43 when I was born. Born in 1919, Dad was from a time where a long life was not assumed. His sister, Alma, died of scarlet fever when she was 6. His parents both died in their early 50’s when he was in the Pacific during WWII. The youngest 0f 6, he watched several of his older brothers die of heart disease.

There was often talk when I was growing up about how long my dad would live and how we should grieve for him. On walks on the beach or over wine when we got older he would tell us,

“Not to grieve or be sad but please think of me every now and then.”

His comments made me mad – I would grieve if I want to I would tell him (typical stubborn Jen) but I also knew, even as a young girl, this was his way of searching for immortality – please remember me. Please remember me.

I didn’t know these conversations were teaching to me to “pre- grieve” until Dad got pancreatic cancer 7 years ago. After my dad told me the news I later wrote,

 I almost say, ”You’re kidding,” but I only allow myself a fifth of a second of denial before slap!  Gut-clenched, iron-lunged, acid esophagus: so this is how my dad’s life will end.

“So this is how my dad’s life will end” points to this pre-grieving I’m trying to define – this sense of digesting the end. His end. Any end.

This may sound macabre but honestly, for whatever reason, it’s turned into a mighty gift. Here’s why:

  • It reminds you that while we think life is fixed, that we arrive and depart, that is an illusion. We are always in transition, always experiencing change. ALWAYS. When you open to grief as it arrives, even though technically there is “nothing to grieve yet,” you open to this weirdly fluid, fascinating ever-changing parade called life.  Pre-grieving certainly prevents boredom.
  • It ups your gratitude. Say you are walking in the woods, listening to Keep Me in Your Heart by Warren Zevon (written when he was dying), and you find yourself sobbing. You don’t tell yourself “But Dad is still here,” you go ahead and sob. Images and feelings pass through you in no particular order, a satisfying jumble, they crest and subside. You blow your nose on the sleeve of your fleece jacket. You go home and call him (God I wish this was still possible yet even still) and you are so grateful you can hear his voice, make small talk about the stock market. Hell yes, you get a bit graspy with your gratitude but so what? Your heart is open. You are here.
  • You get far less caught up in your puffy self-importance at the same time you yearn into your true potential. You must live in the way that brings you happiness. You take action and let go of the results.
  • Finally, pre-grieving makes you look younger. Crying is good for your soul’s complexion. You have to do it to know what I mean.

The idea of pre- grieving might be splitting hairs – all grieving, you might say, is grieving, whether the grief has happened or is anticipated. That is true. Yet I find we like to play mind games with ourselves about pain – to cut it off until we must feel it – and perhaps when we do, we shut off life.

We are life. The only thing I know for sure is the more I can be in life, the less regrets I have. If that means blowing my nose on my fleece, so be it.

Do you pre-grieve? Is this distinction helpful? Do tell.


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