Anticipatory grief fails to prepare or comfort

In some ways, I think she’s been anticipating the grief of her father’s death since I’ve known her. And I’ve known her for 32 years.

Early in our relationship, I noticed cues subtle and not-so-subtle that pointed to the urgency and power of her bond with her father. Let there be no doubt that the bond was profound, beautiful and loving. The man would die for her. Go to prison for her. Sacrifice anything for her happiness. Turn with ferocity on anyone who hurt her. His picture is hanging next to the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” Since the day I met her, I have more than a few times heard her say, “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

He was always at his best when she needed him.

Through this bond he poured wisdom, teachings and values. She is more than competent — socially, interpersonally and individually. She is a terrific mother, giving her father his only grandchild. He emblazoned his work ethic upon her. She went to school, garnered an education and carved out her own vocational identity, not to mention economic self-sufficiency.

Father and daughter. A bond profound, beautiful and loving. A bond at once an inspiration and a weighty, invisible gravity. A willing burden. A defining responsibility. Even her young adult, low-budget rebellions spoke of his encompassing influence in shaping and directing her life. In the end, she wanted more to make him proud. She expected of herself always a dutiful and honoring daughter.

Her father is the quintessential patriarch of an Old World clan. When asked at his daughters’ respective weddings, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?,” he said, “I do,” but he was crossing his fingers. He really meant, “It’s OK with me if they get married. But let me be clear: I’m never ‘giving’ my daughters away.”

She works for months to plan and deliver a landmark birthday celebration for her father. He’s the richest man alive. Surrounded by family. Loved. Honored. Letters, photos and sentimental music. She does him so very proud. Her reward is the bittersweet echo of time.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, her heart is reluctantly struggling to embrace what her logical mind always knew: Her father is mortal. Just like her and the rest of us, made of clay. His near-mythic place in her life was a place occupied always by an utterly human being.

Anticipatory grief, it’s called. Trying to get the mind, heart and body prepared to be sad. Coaching ourselves to accept reality. Believing that, once accepted, things will be better, clearer and easier.

Anticipatory grief is what we humans do. It’s what the ego does to protect itself. But, the truth is, anticipatory grief is not all that effective in achieving its hoped-for goals. I recall the character of Aurora, played by Shirley MacLaine in the 1983 movie “Terms of Endearment.” Aurora’s daughter is dying of cancer. In her last moments of life, the daughter waves wordlessly to her mother, sitting vigil in the hospital room. The camera watches Aurora’s face react to the moment of her daughter’s passing. The nurse comes in to confirm what is obvious. And, after choking on several broken syllables and sentence fragments, Aurora speaks for all of us when she says, incredulously, “I don’t know why you tell yourself that you’re ready.”

You see, there is no getting ready. No getting prepared. Not for love. Not for death. Not for grief. These things just happen to us. These things just take us, willing or unwilling, wherever they will. When they will. As they will. Life has its way with us. No one outthinks it. Or outsmarts it.

What we’re invited to do, of course, is to live it. To pour our lives out — brazenly, passionately — like fine wine. To remember that only great wine poured out can ever be great.

“You understand, I hope, that I’m going to ‘lose it’ when he dies,” she says to me, warning us both, and perhaps floating the question of what she might expect from me.

“I know,” is all I say in return.

Easier for me, of course. I already “see” her on the other side of her suffering, with a heart grown much stronger and larger because of her courageous tears. On the other side of grief, I see her father’s love made still stronger in death. A bond made paradoxically closer yet roomier. Freer. Liberating.

Then she will honor his legacy by forging her own.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.

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