How to Be in an Emotionally Good Place to Die
Anticipatory grief isn’t just for those who are left behind
Everyone’s days are numbered, only some of us have a clearer idea than others of our expiry date. Anticipatory grief isn’t just for those who are left behind. If you know you’re dying, preparing yourself emotionally for leaving your loved ones and your inevitable loss of health can help you make the way easier for you and your loved ones.
Whether you’re dying due to old age or a terminal illness, your diminishing health comes with several losses, including a loss of independence, a loss of being physically active, not being able to drive, a loss of control and safety, and feeling vulnerable. Any unfinished business can also add a layer of anguish.
Here are a few ways our work can set you free and help you to end well.
1. Grief is normal and natural
We recognise that grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss - whether that loss has been brought about by a bereavement, i.e., the death of someone important in your life, the end of a relationship, or one of the many significant life events that invoke grief. As we’ve identified, grief can include loss of your own health and life.
Grief is a complex emotional state that has nothing to do with our intellect. We cannot rationalise ourselves better. Therefore any “treatment” that appeals to our heads and not our hearts is doomed to fail.
Recovery, therefore, is not about understanding grief on a rational level, it's about learning the language of the heart. When we do that, we can start feeling better.
Regrets and the continual time spent on reliving these painful feelings of regret can have an enormous negative physical and emotional impact on you. These feelings can result in stress, hormonal, and immune system issues, and even cause problems with your mental health.
Dying may give you a sense of guilt; unfinished business, the guilt of leaving your loved ones behind, that kind of thing. The dictionary definition of guilt implies intent to harm.
In most instances, you probably haven’t done anything with the intent of harming someone you love, so put the word back in the dictionary! If you have, a heartfelt apology can help to remove the obstacle.
4. Acknowledge and Say Everything
Undelivered communications can cause damage to those left behind and can leave you regretting that you haven’t said something you wanted to. There are a whole host of feelings that may be attached to those unsaid things.
Happiness, sadness, love, fear, anger, relief, and compassion are just some of the feelings that a griever might experience. We do not need to categorise, analyse, or explain those feelings. We do need to learn how to communicate them.
Why is emotional truth important?
What is not said can be just as harmful as what is said. Imagine one of your parents dying. The last time you spoke, you had a heated discussion. Two days later, they died. You hadn’t said ‘I love you’ or ‘thank you for bringing me up to be the person I am today.’ And they hadn’t told you they love you either.
However, just a small tweak to the end of your heated discussion generates a much better ending. Something along the lines of ‘I’m not going to agree with your point of view, so I’m going to go now, and I still love you.’
Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if I didn’t have the opportunity to say, ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ or anything else I might want to say? If you feel you may be missing an opportunity and you’d regret it, then the sooner you address it, the better.
There’s a difference between being emotionally honest and facts. The emotional truth is what you feel. This sometimes has nothing to do with the facts. Taking the above example, the fact is you’ve had an argument.
Being emotionally honest at the end of it changes your feelings about that argument in the future. Very quickly you can see that you might tell a different story about how you felt about the same event if you weren’t emotionally honest at the end.
Talking about your emotional truth is about expressing the voice in your heart, not your head. The truth in your head is about the facts involved in a situation. Think of head stuff as what you might say in court.
In our relationships with others, it’s important to share what you feel rather than what you think others would like to hear.
Telling your emotional truth should reflect the way you lived your experience.
Here are some examples of how to start talking about your emotional truths as you’ve experienced them:
This is what happened to me…
Here’s how I feel about it…
Sometimes emotional honesty can make you or the person you’re talking to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to talking about your true feelings. This may involve concerns that they take your feelings the wrong way, or you’re worried about hurting their feelings. It might be that you’re risking your feelings, that you tell them how you really feel, and they don’t feel the same way as you do.
This is a risk worth taking because you are being true to yourself. When we allow ourselves to “put it out there” and be honest with our feelings and needs, there is a good chance that others will follow. Look at this as a gift of time.
Take a reflective look at who you are and how you would want to leave your communications with your nearest and dearest. Time for honest reflection can put things into perspective and provide you with an opportunity to discover what and who is important.
Tell the emotional truth about yourself and people around you will know where you’re at.
Here are some examples:
I love you
I’m very proud of the person you’ve become
Thank you for always being there for me
I always love spending time with you
I’m frustrated I can’t go dancing
I’m scared of dying
I’m sorry for shouting at you
I appreciate the sacrifices you made for me
5. Say Goodbye
When you speak to someone on the phone, it’s normal to end the conversation with ‘see you soon’ or ’see you later.' We’d urge you to make sure you say ‘goodbye,’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘I miss you’ (if they’re true and honest statements for you to make) to those you care about as frequently as you can at the end of your conversations. Saying goodbye at the end of every conversation means that in the event something awful happens, your last word was goodbye.
In our work with grieving people, we regularly hear that one of the painful ideas that keeps them stuck in their grief is that they didn’t get to say goodbye. Firefighters and those in the armed forces are trained never to part on a bad word with loved ones for this very reason.
Saying goodbye is an important signal to your heart. It also signifies that we can say goodbye and still be alright. Nothing bad will happen because we said goodbye at the end of a call. However, if something bad happens it is one less thing to feel awful about.
Resist the temptation to say goodbye then 'speak to you tomorrow' as this negates the benefit of the goodbye – leaving an assumption that tomorrow’s conversation will happen and while it probably will, try turning it around so that the goodbye is last: 'speak tomorrow, sleep well, goodbye'. This way you can keep your assumption and hope that you’ll speak to them again soon AND complete the conversation. Think of goodbye as the full stop. It always comes at the very end.
If you would like to speak to someone who can listen and help you with your final journey, we have Grief Specialists who are available to work with you online and face-to-face. There are no waiting lists and there is no better time to begin healing.
Maria Bailey is an Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist based near Torquay, Devon, where she lives with her husband, three children and two dogs. Maria uses the Grief Recovery Method, a short action programme via Zoom, to mainly help people who have lost loved ones to cancer and Covid-19. You can find out more about Maria here.