If you grieve losses in advance, you are not alone—or neurotic. Rather, you are experiencing an aspect of your highly sensitive trait.
I feel the poignant sadness that arises at this time each year as the weather gets cooler and my dahlias wither away. I’ve found myself out in the garden taking picture after picture.
This sadness isn’t special to autumn, though. Now that my parents have been on the planet for eight decades, the reality of loss is on my mind all the time.
My parents had the four of us before they turned thirty, and I’ve always thought of them as “young:” younger than my friends’ parents, “young for their age,” “young to have grandkids.” But now they are well past the age my grandparents were when, kissing them goodbye after a visit, I’d get sad wondering if this might be the last time I’d see them.
As it turned out, this went on for years, because both of them were very healthy. My parents have had their share of challenges recently, but they are still very much here. “Still,” says my sadness, “No one can live forever.” Why, I’ve wondered, am I mourning them? Am I a reincarnation of Eeyore?
“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it IS a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all WHAT?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. …I’m not complaining, but There It Is.”
― A.A. Milne
No… as adorable as Eeyore’s neurotic gloom is, my sadness is something different. It is an inevitable result of the deep processing I engage in—a key aspect of my highly sensitive trait.
Elaine Aron has a name for this constant awareness of the arc of life: anticipatory grief.* In The Highly Sensitive Person, explaining why HSPs find medical appointments particularly stressful and over-arousing, she comments that “your deep intuition cannot ignore the shadowy presence of suffering and death, the human condition.”
For HSPs, this isn’t gloomy or neurotic. On the contrary, Elaine says, “Living life aware of death makes sense to me, provided it increases your appreciation of the moment.” Eeyore might say, “Mourning things in advance thing does not count as Gloomy Behavior, especially as it introduces dangerously Grateful Tendencies.”
The silver lining of anticipatory grief
To grieve losses in advance might sound masochistic. I can imagine a skeptic saying, “Why drag it out? You’ll be sad soon enough.” But in truth, to mourn something is also to celebrate it. We don’t mourn things (or people) we don’t care about.
Anticipatory grief heightens my awareness of all that is most precious to me. It fosters gratitude. Instead of overwhelming me or paralyzing me, it prods me to spend my time, money and energy savoring the people, places, and experiences I most value.
When I feel sad anticipating my parents’ inevitable passing, I sit myself down and say, “OK, is there something I need to do about this? Take time just to be sad? Buy a plane ticket and go visit? Call home? Am I enjoying my parents as much as I can while they are still here?”
As I’ve watched my dahlias fade, this consciousness of impermanence has inspired me to a new kind of creativity. I’ve never “created an image” before: I’ve simply snapped photos in order to record events. Exploring the vibrant landscape of these beautiful flowers in extreme closeup satisfied a deep need I had to celebrate and savor them before they died.
In that regard, anticipatory grief is complex. It is stimulated by the reality of death, yet it can inspire celebration, appreciation, and gratitude for the reality of life. By expressing those positive feelings while I still can, I forestall the hardest kind of grief: the grief of regret that I failed to appreciate things and people while I still could.
Note: This is an edited version of an article of the same title that was published on Oct 16, 2017.
Photo: 2017 Emily Agnew, all rights reserved
*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge, p. 61
**Aron, Elaine (1996): The Highly Sensitive Person: New York: Broadway Books, p. 189
Hi Emily. I like your photo – it reminds me of an electron microscope image!
For me, reminders to appreciate life because it won’t last have often landed with a feeling of threat – something like “you better appreciate this because it will be taken from you.” This made it impossible for me to enjoy, savour or feel gratitude.
Nowadays, it is much easier for me to be in the moment – not because of the anticipation of loss – but because it simply feels better to cultivate enjoyment and gratitude in the moment, independent of the reality of eventual loss. Anticipatory grief is still there, but somehow stands hand in hand with the more positive feelings, rather than being a threat.
I’m not sure how I made that shift. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of loss I have had in the past year and I now know that I can handle it.
In going through these recent losses, I have also learned that regret is not fun, but I can handle that too. Still, I agree with you that regret (whether anticipatory or actual) can help me think about how I want to live now.
HI Kim, I agree completely, that would be intensely stressful if we tried to “should” ourselves into a state of gratitude. Thank you for clarifying this important point. This sounds like a major shift you are describing, to be able to “hold both”—the anticipatory grief, and a sense of gratitude and enjoyment.
I’m appreciating your distinction between “anticipatory or actual” grief. It helps me see that a greater proportion than I had realized of the grief I feel these days regarding my parents is actual, current grief.