When I was 23 my mom called to let me know my dad needed open heart surgery.
I've been preparing for "the call" all my life because my parents are older than my peers' parents.
I've been dealing with anticipatory grief for years.
Most 20-somethings aren't expecting the call. You know, the call where you find out that you might lose a parent. When I got the call a year ago, I was 23 years old and settling into my new apartment in New York City. I was standing on the precipice of my adult life, with grad school and a new job on the horizon.
It was my mom on the other end of the line. My dad needed emergency open heart surgery to save his life. I got on the next flight home and tried to wrap my head around the horrifying news. But in many ways, I had been preparing for that phone call my entire life.
Unlike most emerging adults — whose parents are in their 40s or 50s — my parents are already senior citizens. I always knew my parents' decision to have their first child in their 40s would shorten the amount of time I had with them — especially with my dad.
He made a full recovery, but I still carry grief
Thankfully, the surgery worked, and my dad has made a full recovery. But since then, I've agonized over my decision to move away from home, wondering if something will happen to them while I'm gone. It's been difficult to embrace my newfound independence and enjoy the life I'm building for myself.
Mostly, I grapple with profound grief at the thought of everything my parents might miss out on, like my wedding day or future children. But can we truly grieve the living?
Apparently, we can. Anticipatory grief is the experience of grieving an inevitable future loss. Counselor educator and anticipatory grief expert Kylie Rogalla can speak to this experience from both an academic and personal perspective. "The first diaper I ever changed was that of my own father. Watching his mobility and his functionality go down the drain so quickly — it was grief in the present time," she said.
What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is the mind's way of preparing us for an upcoming loss. It doesn't make the grief we feel after the loss any less difficult, but it gives us an opportunity to spend time with our loved ones, gather support, and say goodbye, according to Rogalla.
For children of older parents, anticipatory grief can plague our 20s. While most people won't worry about losing their parents until their 40s or 50s, others don't have as much time. Emerging adulthood is filled with growth, uncertainty, and change. Adding anticipatory grief into that mix creates a number of challenges.
Emerging adulthood is a time of independently building an adult life, says Jeffrey Arnett, originator of the concept. Throwing an aging parent's ill health into that process creates a disruption. Emerging adults with older parents may feel restricted when making certain decisions, such as where to live or whether to pursue higher education. Anticipatory grief can make them feel torn between choosing what is best for their own growth and what's best for their parents.
It can be isolating
It can also be isolating. When most of your peers have parents much younger than yours, it's difficult to find people who understand what you're going through. That's why it's important to connect with people who can empathize with your experience. Actively seeking social support is the most effective coping mechanism for people struggling with anticipatory grief, according to Rogalla's research.
For me, coping with anticipatory grief has meant going back to therapy, telling close friends how I feel — even those who can't relate — and having some tough conversations with my parents. While acknowledging the impermanence of our relationship is difficult for all three of us, those conversations helped me find ways to make the most of our time together without sacrificing my goals. Grief is an inevitable part of the human experience; learning to live with it — rather than trying to avoid it — is the only way.
"We're not moving on. We're not getting over it. We're making room," said Rogalla.
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