Staying Present While Preparing for Grief

I’m in a dark place today.

I try my best not to share the difficult things of my life. I share the mid-range struggles I have, the ones I think can be used to help get other people through their difficult times. But I tend to keep the truly hard stuff to myself.

Today’s an exception.

I am living in a strange purgatory. It’s the one where I have a parent who is still with me, but for whom I am preparing my heart for grief. My dad is the strongest man I know. He was a war veteran—a Navy pilot. He dedicated decades of his life keeping people safe in the skies as an air traffic controller. He beat cancer twice, and is now trying his best to recover from his third brush with it. There are some other health-related issues that, I believe, are of greater concern than the cancer, and that I fear are bringing him toward the end of life.

I am in constant fear of a catastrophic event taking him from us in a single swipe. Or, perhaps worse, having to watch him slowly disappear.

This is new to me. I’m not accustomed to anticipatory grief, and I’m not sure what to do with it. How do you stay in the present when your mind is fixated on a dark and grief-stricken future? How do you enjoy the moments without wondering if each one might be the last?

I don’t have answers. I only have confusion and a lot of despair.

These are the soul-stripping moments of life. The ones we don’t know how to handle, but have to figure it out anyway.

All I know for certain is that this is the time of living with no regrets. It’s a time of choosing to lean in, even to the things that I know are going to hurt, so that I don’t have to look back on this time and feel like I squandered it. It’s hard to see my father slowly losing his strength, his interest, his motivation. It’s something that my inner child is terrified of, and that child is constantly begging me to just stay away and not make her see it. But my adult self, the one who lives right here in the present and who is aware of a me in the future who will know what life is like without him, knows I have to witness this. I have to observe it. I have to lean in.

My husband offered to keep our kids for a weekend while my dad and I go on a trip to a cabin somewhere. I proposed this idea to my dad, and he declined. He doesn’t feel healthy enough, he says, and I believe him. But I also think there is a part of him who doesn’t want me to see him like this, either. After doing a little pushing, and with the help of my mom, we convinced him to let me come stay at their house for the weekend, just me. My husband and kids will stay behind so that I can absorb some precious moments with my first family.

I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m lost.

All I know is that anticipatory grief is no different from real grief. It is tangible and all-encompassing. It is profound. The only difference, I believe, is that when I am in anticipatory grief I can do something about it. I can choose to make memories. I can decide to confront the painful truth about what lies in store instead of pretending it’s not happening. I can be intentional about my time with him, however much is left.

So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m leaning in.

Time is a thief. It steals incrementally, little by little. Every moment that passes is one that is lost if you haven’t chosen to make the most of it.

Don’t let the fear of grief keep you from doing things in the present that might help mitigate the grief when it comes. Make the memories. Do the things. Say the hard stuff.

And don’t wait until you only have moments left to do it.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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