(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of grief. Reader discretion advised)
“I looked again at her, wan, pale as a late winter’s moon, and felt that old familiar ache, my childhood’s fear, but all I said was, see you soon, Amma, all I did was smile and smile and smile...“
When I first read this disconsolate poetry by Kamala Das as a teenager, I was left baffled for days. I could not register the fact that there is a future without your mother. How bizarre, I exclaimed to myself and flipped through the pages of my CBSE textbook back.
Ironically, these lines of the poetry resurfaced in my mind, when I saw my mother whimper in pain during one of her blood tests. I felt no one understood me better than Kamala Das.
My mother was diagnosed with Interstitial Lung Disease or ILD, a rare respiratory disease in December 2020. The disease describes a large group of disorders, most of which cause progressive scarring of lung tissue. Shortly after the diagnosis, I found myself shrouded with an unfamiliar emotion.
It felt like the walls around me were inching closer, the knot in my throat getting larger and a ticking bomb looming right above my head. Tick.Tock.Tick.Tock… It has a name too… Anticipatory Grief.
What Is Anticipatory Grief?
I was told by my therapist that I was dealing with anticipatory grief. A natural form of grief that occurs before the loss. The loss could be anyone or anything – of a loved one, relationship, job or a dream.
Multiple research show that it is similar to conventional grief but sometimes it comes with ‘higher intensities of loss of emotional control.’ As soon as the existence of something you love is put to question, the fear and anxiety creeps in.
Since the day I was told about the uncertainties attached to my mother's health, I have lived and died a thousand times in a thousand ways. Despite a poor grasp in math I have calculated the variables and constants in my head.
I look at my mother, a formerly paunchy woman being gnawed away by her disease. And suddenly every dream I had envisioned with her turns into a cloudy mist. That vacation in London after my desired promotion.. Cafe hopping in Puducherry to celebrate my 30… buying her a cottage in Shimla. But how can I give her all at 25 with no bank balance? It’s not just an impending loss, you also grieve the future you could never have.
Shielding Her From Severity: My Number One Concern
A prolonged illness not only changes the person’s physiology but also their personalities. Despite shielding her from the severity of the diseases (in a tech savvy world) I also have to witness the slow ebbing away of the person she used to be.
Recently my mother reduced herself to ‘I don't have enough time’ and hearing it from her magnified the pain.
Even before the person dies, anticipatory grief can cause you to mourn the person they were, the changes in your family and the changes in the idea of merely existing.
It doesn't take long for the Ws to seep in, When will it happen? What will I do without her? Why is this happening to her? It feels like I am stuck in a limbo with my demons. Imagine having the same dream over and over again.
You fall off a clip. Headfirst. You prepare yourself for the fall. Prepare to hear the last thud. The sound of your skull crackling. The muscles peel layer by layer. But it never happens.
You fall and fall and fall into a bottomless pit. This is what anticipatory grief feels like in its goriest form.
Between Past and Future: How I Cope
Anticipatory grief can also be very lonely and make you feel helpless. I remember opening up to my dearest friend about my fears and anxiety, and I was instantly cut off with a stern, “Be positive Ishita! Nothing has happened.”
I often find myself questioning the way I feel. Am I a bad person for mourning someone who exists?
It often comes with a lot of guilt traps. I find myself lying in the bed staring into space and thinking about the times I had wronged her. My vicious rebellious teen phase or ‘I hate my parents 20s' or the absolute abomination of human decency during the ‘nobody understands me’ phase.
Each phase comes with its own baggage, racking it up on my neck. Making it difficult to breathe. Making it hard to forgive myself. If I had one chance, I would make it okay. Followed by the additional thoughts of ‘If i had taken her to the hospital earlier’ or ‘If i had more money…’ It is a never ending cycle.
But practicing mindfulness has helped me get my emotions in control. I often wait for a miracle or divine intervention or scientific marvel to take place. But these things aren't in my control. But what I do have in control is the NOW! This moment, where I look around and I am content.
Over the few years I have taken a hard look at myself and my relationship with her. I cherish every moment to its fullest.
I have gotten to know how my mother once sat for an engineering exam, she loves reading the Bronte sisters, her favorite color is navy blue, her dreams and fear and everything in between.
When the grief starts creeping in, I usually give her a hug to remind myself that she’s here and I need to be better for her.
Sometimes at night I like to sneak into her room. I touch her feet and they are warm. She's here. She is breathing and I love her.