Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Grief Before Death

Fear of the Unknown

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”   J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

We have a great ability to predict the future. And we’re usually wrong. What we fear will happen often doesn’t, yet it holds us back from living today with gusto. We live as people dead before we actually die. Which is almost the same thing.

A friend was recently diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to tell her that everything would be okay, but I didn’t know this. No one did. From my time with people on the grief side, I knew that my friend didn’t need platitudes. What she needed was someone to sit and wait with her in the shadows.

I know death. The standing beside the unbreathing bodies of people I loved, and the long journey after. But the journey towards death? Other friends have had to watch their spouses go through chemo, surgery, and then experimental treatments and watch as hope faded away. They began to grieve before death came.

I should note that my friend’s situation isn’t a slide into death. That’s one of the possibilities. What is different now is the awareness that she is finite. When we’re under the age of 60, we don’t think about our mortality. We expect to live a bunch more years, and many of us do. Some of us don’t.

I also understand facing the unknown, the constant distraction, the growing drag on one’s energy as worries and various scenarios multiply. My wife battled Candida for ten years and had almost recovered when a severe pain showed up. The doctors did tests for a month but couldn’t find the cause. I felt enormous dread, like something had been set in motion that nothing was going to stop.

Cancer’s territory is better known. Doctors can determine the cause, treatment is administered, and percentages of survival are given. You endure a round of chemotherapy and go on with your life, or you start the countdown toward death. I’ve had enough friends go both ways to know that this is a big unknown. Even the doctors don’t know. This is where my friend currently lives, enduring the physical trauma, burning, and nausea of treatment while waiting to find out which path she is on.

We did not have a slide with my wife. Shortly after I realized that death was a possibility, Ev had a fatal heart attack and I was thrown to the grief side of the equation.

After her death, I hiked the back trails in Yosemite by myself and faced my own death. I realized that I could die hiking alone because of the possibilities of breaking a leg, getting lost, running out of water, or freezing to death, not to mention the danger of sometimes-irascible mountain lions and bears.

I hiked alone to confront my fears. But what I needed more was the euphoria of hiking in the beauty of the wilderness to make me care about living again. I needed to see wonders that were greater than my grief. I needed the hope that existed beyond my fears, and I wasn’t going to let the possibility of death hold me back. I did not want to live life trying not to die. There was too much that I still wanted to experience.

What I can do is sit with my friend and talk about life, as we wait to find out which direction her future will head. And then we will talk about that.

What we have is today. And today we live.


  1. Thank you for the inspiration!
    Linda Rubino

  2. When you can't be certain if a loved one is going survive a health crisis, you want to focus on living now and hopefully not have fear become grief. On the other hand, if you are very certain death is imminent you may share grief with that loved one. At least for me and my wife, grieving before death was comforting in ways I never expected. Knowing how little time may be left, we accepted "anticipatory grief counseling" with a wonderful support team beginning long before hospice. We had gone on day by day sharing memories and struggling to be normal in our relationship. But of course it was not "normal". With help, we addressed her fears, her faith and her wishes for my future as well. Discussions we may not have had alone trying to avoid thinking about her looming end of life. She was able to open up to counselors, her pastor and loved ones that ultimately made her final journey more understandable, and perhaps more acceptable, in many ways. Having done so early on, our remaining time together became more intimate without other distractions. For us, grieving before death made the journey easier. If others are in that process, having anticipatory grief counseling early has wonderful benefits. A life may end, but the relationship continues; and for me my wife was able to help guide me and plan how I would continue.

    1. I am glad you had that time with your wife, Peter. And glad that you both were able to embrace it and use it to your advantage, as hard as that was. I didn't have that with my wife because she died so suddenly, and so much was left unsaid, including what she would want me to do in the future. Thank you for sharing your insights.