How to Cope When a Loved One is in Palliative Care

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Every year, an estimated 56.8 million people need palliative care. This number includes 25.7 million people in the last year of their life. It can be difficult to see someone you love at the end of their life, and it may even result in you starting your grieving process while they’re still here. This post explains the anticipatory grief of palliative care, how to cope with it, and how to prepare yourself for your loved one’s passing.

What is Palliative Care?

When a person has a serious, life-threatening medical condition, they need care to minimize their suffering and make them as comfortable as possible. That’s exactly what palliative care is. It can happen in a hospital, nursing home, or even in a person’s home.

Palliative care focuses on providing:

  • Physical symptom and pain relief
  • Emotional and spiritual support
  • Everyday, practical assistance
  • Support for making treatment decisions
  • Care coordination

With the support of palliative care, people tend to feel less pain and nausea. They also breathe easier, feel better emotionally, and can communicate more clearly. Palliative care is especially helpful because of its professional, team-based approach. Professionals work together to provide the most comfortable experience possible.

Palliative care is often for people diagnosed with:

  • Terminal cancer
  • Heart failure
  • Renal disease
  • Chronic, progressive pulmonary disorders
  • Progressive neurological conditions

Palliative care improves a person’s quality of life and helps minimize the strain on their family. In many situations, palliative care allows the client to remain in their home instead of living in a nursing home. But when should a person start palliative care?

Experiencing Anticipatory Grief

It’s difficult to see your loved one’s health deteriorate. It’s even more challenging when you know that the end of their life is near. Your grieving process can begin before a person passes. This emotional reaction is anticipatory grief or grief before an impending loss.

Signs of anticipatory grief include:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Sadness with frequent crying
  • Depression
  • Emotions that seem out of control
  • Lack of motivation
  • Denial
  • Wanting to talk about what’s happening
  • Extreme focus on caring for the ill person

Anticipatory grief typically comes in stages, just like regular grief. The difference is that these stages happen while the person is still living, and they can result in you enjoying the time you have with your loved one less

The 4 stages of anticipatory grief are:

  1. Recognizing Impending Death – The first stage is recognizing that your loved one is dying and you can’t change or stop this outcome. People in this stage often experience extreme sadness. Some may even experience depression.
  2. Concern for Your Loved One – The second stage is extreme concern about your loved one. You may focus on getting them the absolute best care possible, spend all of your time with them, or even worry obsessively about how they’re coping emotionally with their condition.
  3. Death Preparation – In the third stage, you begin planning practically for your loved one’s death. In this stage, you’ll make sure you know their wishes and may even say goodbye to them.
  4. Imagining the Future – The final stage of this type of grief is when you start to imagine life without your loved one in it.

While experiencing anticipatory grief is common, it doesn’t stop you from grieving when your loved one passes. Instead, it makes the grieving process longer and may make you feel like you missed out on taking advantage of the time you had left with your loved one.

Coping with Anticipatory Grief

Knowing that your loved one’s time is limited is incredibly difficult. If this is your reality, you want to do what’s best for you and them and ensure you make the most of the time you have left. This likely means learning coping skills like the ones below to help you deal with anticipatory grief.

  • Embrace Your Feelings – The death of a loved one is an extremely difficult part of life. It’s natural to grieve that person. What you’re feeling is expected. You are supposed to grieve the loss of someone important to you. Give yourself room to feel those feelings and process them.
  • Surround Yourself with Support – Talk and group therapies are practiced so widely for a reason. Talking with others about your feelings and concerns makes you feel better. Surround yourself with family and friends and talk to them about your experiences. Your family members will also benefit from sharing their feelings about your loved one with you.
  • Practice Self-Care – It would be easy to focus all your time and attention on your ill loved one. While you want to take advantage of the time you have left with them, don’t forget to take care of yourself too. Be sure you’re getting plenty of sleep, eating well, moving your body, and taking time to do things you love or that relax you. Taking care of yourself will make you better prepared to care for your loved one. It also will help you handle difficult emotions as they arise.
  • Say What You Need to Say – It’s not the time for unresolved feelings or words left unsaid. Say what you need to say to your loved one. Tell them you forgive them for something that happened in the past. Ask their forgiveness if you’ve erred. Tell them specifically what they’ve done for you that you appreciate. Don’t forget to tell them you’ll be OK without them, even if you don’t feel it yet.
  • Stay Present – Do your best during this challenging time to live in day-tight compartments. That means you want to try to stay in the present moment and focus only on what’s happening today. Worrying about the past or the future won’t help and will likely add to your stress.
  • Seek Professional Support – You don’t have to experience the end of a loved one’s life and grief alone. Getting help from a mental health professional means you have an unbiased, uninvolved party to talk to about your complicated feelings. A counselor can also help you work through anticipatory grief and the grief yet to come.

Preparing for Grief

Once your loved one passes, you’ll move to more traditional grief, which is the feelings you have after a significant loss in your life. Grief can affect you emotionally and physically, and it can take some time to process and move into a new life without your loved one. Since you know you’ll experience grief in a matter of time, you can do some things to prepare yourself for this next stage.

  • Learn About Grieving – Knowing what to expect from the grieving process can help you prepare for it and better understand what’s happening along the way. You may want to consider the stages of grief and prepare yourself as best you can for them.
  • Make Plans – You can’t control many things in life, but you can prepare practically for losing your loved one. Have the conversations you need to have with them while they’re still here. Make sure you know their wishes and begin making plans (including financial and legal ones), so you can enact them more easily once your loved one passes. Make practical plans for yourself, like taking time off of work or making necessary travel arrangements that you can plan. You don’t need to be worried about how the dog will get fed while you’re away when you’re steeped in grief, so try to plan what you can ahead of time.
  • Embrace Support – You’ll need your support system when your loved one passes. Have your system in place and know who you can turn to for help with various tasks or for different types of emotional support. Who is the friend you can call in the middle of the night when you’re hurting? Who is the family member who wants to reminisce over lunch? Think about who you have in your support network and draw them close.
  • Continue Caring for Yourself – Self-care is still essential when grieving. You are your No. 1 priority after a loved one’s death. Be sure you’re taking care of your physical and emotional health as best you can. Don’t forget to show yourself some grace if something slips through the cracks. Your friend will forgive that her birthday slipped your mind when you’re struggling.
  • Acknowledge Your Feelings – You’re hurting, and that’s understandable. Losing someone you love changes your life forever. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and understand that it’s right, regardless of what it is. There’s no correct or incorrect way to grieve. Be kind to yourself as you work through this difficult time.

Let All Counseling Help

You don’t have to go through a difficult diagnosis, palliative care, or any part of grief alone. A mental health professional can listen to your feelings and concerns and guide you through your grief. They can help you process your emotions and deal with the unique challenges that come with death.

All Counseling can help you find the mental health support you need. Use our therapist directory to find a mental health professional to support you through this difficult time.