This Is Us

What it’s like to mourn the living

Watercolor-like illustration of a person standing on a snowy field with their back to the viewer, watching the sun set over a cluster of trees on the horizon.
Image: Alice Popkorn via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Over the winter, I got the urge to travel to my hometown, Pittsburgh. If you’re familiar with my writing, you know I have a love-hate relationship with that place. Two things bring me back home: holidays and funerals. But this time, neither was the reason for my trip. Before shutdown began, I was battling what I thought was depression.

I was preoccupied with the passing of my parents, who I could still pick up a phone and call. I began to obsess over the pain of their passing, almost to the extent that I could already feel it. I would call them just to check in, and I’d become teary-eyed at the sound of aging in their answers: the repetition, the forgetfulness. It was all becoming too much for me. It wouldn’t take long for my anxiety to take me on an agonizing journey through the ugly inevitable. One minute I’m thinking of home-going ceremonies, and the next, I’m thinking of who would take in the widowed parent. Then I’m thinking of losing them both because they can’t bear to be without each other, and before I know it, I’m one big emotional mess.

I thought I might feel better about things if I went home, set sights on my parents. To my surprise, seeing them made me feel even worse: the clatter of the teacup as my mom struggled to steady the glass above her saucer, seeing my dad carefully climb up and down the stairs. “I got it, Mom!” “I’ll get it, Dad,” I echoed my entire visit. I cooked three meals a day and refused to let my father carry so much as a bag of laundry. I watched them pass out side by side, night after night parked in front of the television.

There are many ways to grieve; post-loss grief is just one of them.

My parents were getting old, and I was having a tough time accepting that and everything that came with it. Within a matter of days, I’d go from Wonder Woman to a weeping willow, barely keeping it together most days and wilting at night. Why was I so sad? Was I depressed? Was this just a part of the aging process, or was I doing it wrong?

This sure felt a lot like mourning, but how could I mourn my living parents?

My death obsession took me on an expansive exploration of grief and the grieving process. One of my main takeaways was that there were many ways to grieve; post-loss grief is just one of them. We call this “conventional grief,” which describes grief that occurs after the experience of loss. But grief isn’t just about death. We can mourn the loss of a relationship or marriage, the loss of a career, the loss of stability, even the loss of our innocence. There’s no timeline for how long it lasts, no rules restricting how we respond. Grief can take many forms and, depending on who’s experiencing it, different displays. Conventional grief is the most acknowledged type of reaction to loss in someone’s life.

Then there’s “absent grief,” which looks a lot like no grief at all. Commonly caused by shock or denial about the death, absent grief is a psychological interruption of the grieving process. While it’s important to note that not all grief is visible, when the grieving process never begins, there may be cause for genuine concern. Delayed grief might even look like absent grief for a while, in the sense that there is no notable grieving immediately after the loss is experienced. An otherwise unrelated event can trigger this type of grief; a person may begin experiencing emotional outbursts that do not fit the input they’re responding to. There’s also “ambiguous grief,” “chronic grief,” “prolonged grief,” and many others.

I was undoubtedly dealing with both the physical and the emotional symptoms of the grieving process: irritability, loss of appetite, headaches, fatigue, and a complete preoccupation with death—except I hadn’t lost anyone. Well, it turns out you can grieve the living, which is precisely what I was doing: pre-mourning the loss of these two utterly essential people, my parents.

It’s not just grief that’s tough; it’s having no clue what to do with it.

What I was experiencing also a name: “anticipatory grief,” which is grief that stems from an anticipated loss. It’s the kind of grief we experience when a person under our care or a loved one gets a significant diagnosis, experiences a deterioration of health, or is significantly aging. Although it begins before death has happened, anticipatory grief is still very much grief—with all the physical and emotional despair of the conventional kind. It encompasses the loss of whatever position the person held—whether father, mother, friend, or otherwise—fear of financial change, loss of hope for what could’ve been, loss of unreached potential, and expired promises. That dream home you planned to buy your parents suddenly seeps back into your psyche; only in this vision, your parents aren’t there to see it.

We are emotionally repressed here in the West, so we don’t entertain too many discussions about death, which has left us uninformed if nothing else. We think grief begins when life ends, that until a loss has occurred, we’re safe from the pain of losing a person we love, but truthfully grief begins with the realization of mortality. I can recall a discussion I had when I taught summer camp. My second-graders had just learned of the death of our lizard, Mr. Rawaki the Alligator. I watched their wheels turn as we delicately discussed life and life transitions and placed Mr. Rawaki inside a bracelet box for burial. Understandably, my kiddos had questions.

“Where’s he going?”

“Will he wake up?”

“Can we give him some food?”

“Ms. Arah, I can give him mouth to mouth.”

It is there in the initial awareness of the fragility of human life that worry grows into grief. So, anticipatory grief, as uncommon as it sounds, is really nothing new.

The pandemic has painfully demonstrated this dynamic, chronicling the difficulty in accepting an end of life sooner than previously anticipated. As a friend remotely witnessed her father’s fight with Covid-19, she felt trapped in an emotional in-between. Angry at the inability to alter the outcome, tortured by watching what most people never see coming. But her father was equally troubled, having to write good-bye letters to loved ones he thought he’d have more time with. Both rushed into decisions they weren’t the least bit prepared to make. If life and death go hand in hand, then why aren’t we more prepared for them both?

I was not prepared to lose friends to childbirth in my twenties or to bury friends who lost their lives to intimate partner violence in my thirties. But based on their likelihood for my demographic, I should’ve been more prepared for both possibilities. It’s not just grief that’s tough; it’s having no clue what to do with it.

I was taught to avoid discussions of death until unavoidable, to behave like time was a never-ending resource until it once again proved me wrong.

This pandemic increased the amount of death I’ve experienced in my life, both personally and socially, as a Black woman. It sucks I wasn’t taught better how to cope, encouraged to use those feelings of powerlessness and pain to make meaning of whatever moments remained, make amends, offer apologies, and make room for forgiveness and closure. Instead, I was taught to avoid discussions of death until unavoidable, to behave like time was a never-ending resource until it once again proved me wrong.

I’ve run out of time for avoidance. Our thirties offer a very privileged perspective, particularly when we embark on the journey of parenthood. I’m seeing the newness of life, the trajectory of youth in the form of untapped potential, but at the same time, that I’m watching the life cycle begin to slow. I’m seeing life in the form of endless amounts of energy and trampoline park birthday parties, and at the same time, I’m seeing life in slow, meticulous movements, decade-old morning rituals, and ruby wedding anniversaries.

I’m too deep into the life cycle to pretend not to see it in its fullness. Pre-mourning my parents won’t help to prepare me for such an immense loss. It won’t abbreviate the pain, but it can prepare me for many other emotions that accompany it, like guilt, regret, anger, remorse, and shame. Studies indicate that individuals anticipating a personal loss display a significant decrease in the risk of depression when pre-bereavement coping strategies were prioritized like support groups, counseling, stress management, and memory-making.

I may not be any closer to buying that million-dollar home for my parents, but I have time to process and unpack that guilt and show my parents my appreciation in other ways. I have time to address the intense loneliness that comes from feeling like I’m the only one struggling with things, to seek spaces for conversation and community. And I have time to seek the understanding and the closure I need from my parents, to request answers to any unanswered questions that linger within my inner child.

I am pre-mourning my parents, but at the same time, I’m living through a very poignant period in history. Death has inundated the last year of our lives. It’s understandable to be in a state of hypervigilance in response. But because we’re all there in our own way, we should practice empathy toward one another and show each other a great deal of grace. It doesn’t soften the blow, but it helps make way and room for healing, and we can all use some help with that.

I Am Pre-Mourning My Parents was originally published in Human Parts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.