Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a grief phenomenon that I know is felt by many but doesn't seem to get much airtime. It's something I experienced in three significant losses in my life, something I've heard described by countless grievers over my years as a grief therapist, and yet it doesn’t really have a name in grief research and literature. I’m speaking about the grief that comes at the intersection of a loss that is simultaneously anticipated but nevertheless still sudden and shocking.
Perhaps just reading that last sentence offers insight into why that type of grief and loss remains in the shadows. It's not easy to explain; it sounds downright contradictory. We know what anticipatory grief is - there have been volumes written about it and research papers abound. Anyone who has had a family member or friend in hospice care knows what it means to anticipate a death and feel the grief that emerges before the end comes.
And most of us are also well aware of what sudden and shocking death means and the unique aspects of the grief that follows.
The loss and grief I’m trying to talk about, it somehow manages to be both of these things. It's a paradox. But like many paradoxes, it's a situation that seems contradictory at first, but deep down, it reveals a more profound truth. In this case, the (sometimes revelatory) realization is that in grief, anticipation and shock can co-occur. You can both prepare for the possibility of a death while also having that death be completely shocking and sudden when it arrives.
How Anticipated-Sudden Death Shows Up
There is a long list of situations that can create this type of loss, and if you know you know. But in case this feels abstract, I'll start with some examples from my own life. When I was a teenager my dad was diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness. We were very aware of the inevitability that without a bone marrow transplant, he would die. But not long after being listed, while still very much still himself and not outwardly sick, he died suddenly of a rapid infection. It hit us like a ton of bricks. Yes, we knew all too well that he was sick. But the death also felt unimaginably sudden and shocking.
In Older Adults
Just a few years later, my 93-year-old grandmother died. Society loves to minimize the deaths of older people. So you're not alone if your first thought in reading that sentence was "the death of a 93-year-old can't be shocking!". I assure you, it can. I remember well just a couple of days after her death when I bumped into the young couple who lived next door to my grandmother. When I shared the news they both gasped. The husband exclaimed, "but she was just out here raking leaves last week!". They were even more shocked to learn her age - they'd assumed she was in her seventies.
My grandmother was 93, but she'd lived alone in her own home, completely independently, for thirty years. She worked a part-time job to stay busy into her eighties. She still drove and went to the gym and played bridge several nights per week. We knew her age. We'd of course anticipated that at her age death could come at any time - especially in the wake of my dad's death. But it was also blindsiding - there was no prolonged illness, no time to process the reality before it came.
Several years later, in the early days of the opioid epidemic, my sister's partner was battling a heroin addiction. If you have ever loved someone with an addiction, you know that feeling that every call might be the worst. In some ways, my life felt defined by the knowledge that an overdose could happen at any time – trying to prevent it and brace for it all at once. And though we lived in that fear every day, the shock still shook me to the core. It felt unbelievable when it happened, so much that I wondered if I'd ever anticipated it at all.
The Guilt of Anticipation
A silent struggle in this paradox, one that I suspect keeps it less discussed, is the guilt that comes with anticipating these types of losses. When someone's illness is terminal, if there are no further treatment options, part of the anticipation is acknowledging that there is no more hope for survival. Hospice professionals normalize the ways the brain starts to accommodate the reality of the impending loss and complicated feelings, like the relief, that often follow.
Unfortunately, we often conflate anticipation of possible death with resigning ourselves to the inevitability of that death. The assumption that anticipating means giving up hope makes people reticent to allow themselves to feel and acknowledge that anticipation. The shame leaves people struggling to sit with it, mention it, or process it. This guilt-driven silence sets the stage for shock to hit even harder when the anticipated-sudden loss finally comes. But this anticipation is normal and natural. It isn't a sign we've lost hope. It is our amazing ability to fully hold hope alongside anticipation of potential death that makes these losses so disorienting.
Give Grief Words
On the one hand, we're always cautious of labels and categories when it comes to grief. So often grief exists in shades of gray. And at the same time, without the words to describe the unique experiences of loss, people often find themselves struggling to find language for them, wondering if they are alone in their grief. I cannot count the number of times someone has shared their relief to learn a term like anticipatory grief, ambiguous grief, disenfranchised grief, or suffocated grief because it gave name to something they'd assumed was abnormal or unique to them. Labels can remind us that, though there are no universals in grief, there are many common and shared experiences.
Proposing a New Term: Paradoxical Grief
Why call it "Paradoxical Grief"? Well, the word "paradox" perfectly captures the mix of seemingly conflicting emotions. It's like preparing for a loss and still getting blindsided by it, all coexisting. By putting a name to this experience, we give people the power to express their feelings, creating a community of understanding, and spaces to research.
Paradoxical grief comes with its own set of experiences - sharing these commonalities helps break down the walls of isolation, creating a supportive space for those grappling with paradoxical grief. Anticipation doesn't erase shock, and shock doesn't wipe out the impact of anticipation. This dialectic speaks to the intricate nature of grief, challenging our preconceived notions and inviting a more nuanced conversation about loss.
Importantly, this experience isn't simply a little bit of anticipatory grief mixed with a little bit of sudden, unexpected loss. The combination of those things creates something unique. The confusion and dissonance of feeling things that seem contradictory adds their own dimension to grief, a dimension that can be hard to explain to others.
Sharing personal stories and collectively embracing paradoxical grief helps break the stigma around feeling both anticipation and shock, as well as validate their co-existence. If you relate to this experience, we invite you to leave a comment.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
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