Before the dawn: anticipating loss.

In just under a month on the 1st November the working group which published Scotland’s Bereavement Charter for Adults and Children will be holding a webinar entitled ‘The Space Between: understanding anticipatory grief.’ You can sign up for it and get more details here. On the day we will hear from invited speakers who will reflect on the loss of a parent, the loss of a child and sibling, and the loss of a loved one who you have cared for. The day will also see the publication of the refreshed and updated version of the Charter Guidance document which contains advice and guidance on grief and bereavement. At this time there will be a new section focussing on anticipatory grief.

The phrase might seem a bit strange or alien to those who are not part of the bereavement and grief support world. Sadly, however I suspect the experience of anticipating grief will be all too familiar to many of us.

Anticipatory grief is variously described but in essence it is the grief which starts before someone dies. It is a grief which is often not talked about and sometimes people can be made to feel guilty if they talk about the loss of someone who they know is going to die. So, they shut up and dismiss their feelings. Yet for many of us who have known a loved one who receives a terminal diagnosis like cancer or who has been diagnosed with a condition such as dementia, the grieving can start there and then. It can be terrifyingly immediate and overwhelming. All the lost dreams and possibilities, all the dashed hopes and aspirations, all the places unvisited and the plans unfulfilled. Knowing that someone you love and care about is going to die is a waiting which paralyses the soul and empties you of the few tears you may have left.

My twin brother died from cancer close to 6 years ago and it has taken until now for me to mention that truth in this weekly blog despite all the writing and speaking I undertake on grief and loss. Many twins reading this will recognise that there is often a connection between twins which you feel to be unique and special. It might not always be easy, and distance and the passing years might lessen it, but growing up so inter-connected with another person from the first moments of life onwards can make the sense of grief all the sharper and more painful. And in truth having spoken to a few twins it is a grief that is rarely talked about or shared.

After my twin’s death one of the most challenging series of statements I had to deal with came from those who said things like ‘it was good you had time to prepare’; ‘at least it wasn’t a sudden death’ or ‘you’ll be content that he is at peace now.’ There is a grain and a morsel of truth in some of those sentiments, but their uttering is a dagger to the heart. I know I am not the only person who has heard such words. So many people today will have recently experienced the death of a loved one who they knew was going to die … but we always hold onto the hope, the dream that they would have more time, that there would be more space to make memory and build togetherness… and yet it was not to be. There is no peace in waiting for hurt.

Waiting for someone who means so much to you to die does not prepare you it exhausts you. Waiting for death to come does not make the emptiness of absence any easier it makes it feel even more hollow. Waiting for death does not make the sheer sorrow of the moment any less raw and real.

Years of working and being amongst the dying and the grieving has taught me how little I know about living and dying. But one lesson whose truth I sense as authentic is that grief is not a moment but a series of memories; it is not a task to be undertaken and fulfilled, but a work to be struggled with for what seems forever. It is a journey whose destination is unknown and whose completion is ever in the future.

Maybe that is what those who are anticipating grief and those who are living through it share. A sense that we are changed because of the love we feel for another here and yet absent, present and gone. For they have riven us through with their loving and we are moulded into who we are by our knowing of them.

As for my twin, I think about him every day – like so many bereaved I hear his voice, sense his presence and catch myself wanting to talk to him; I hear his laughter and his passion; I want to pick up the phone and tell him my news or just hear his voice again. To just have another minute to say what was left unsaid and to say a proper goodbye knowing in truth that I could never finish the sentence of love in any time of minutes and hours. Even as I write this, I can feel the shiver inside my body. Grief sits with me, and I have grown used to her presence, but it is one that continually empties me of energy. So, no I cannot accept the experience of some that knowing about the inevitability of death, that anticipating it, prepares you for the reality.

As many of you know I find solace and escape in the reading of poems. Sometimes I find myself coming across esoteric and rare poems. One such which I recently discovered was in a famous group of poems in the tenth-century manuscript known as the Exeter Book. They are stunningly moving medieval reflections on isolation, loss and grief. One of the most famous is called (in a modern translation) The Wife’s Lament, and speaks of the loneliness felt in summer day, a loneliness brought about by isolation and grief. It introduces to the reader a word ‘uhtcearu, a compound which means ‘pre-dawn-sorrow’, ‘grief at early morning’. In Old English uht is the name for the last part of the night, the empty chilly hours just before the dawn, and so a particularly painful time for grief and loneliness.’

I resonate so much with that sense of uhtcearu because for me at least it is in the last hours of night, when the world is still and strangely silent, that loss feels more intense and memory of those not with me seems to settle in beside me, both to soothe and in love to call me into another day. As we anticipate the dawning of the day we move our grieving heart to face the light of another absent day and we know the task of living through memory is to mould our lost love into a new beginning, however hard, every day. But the morning only comes if we allow the uhtcearu.

Donald Macaskill

Dr Eleanor Parker from Oxford University has written a brilliant piece on the Wife’s Lament. See The Wife’s Lament. A Medieval Poem about Isolation | TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

Photo by Abbas Tehrani on Unsplash

Last Updated on 14th October 2023 by donald.macaskill