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When the Dying Belongs to All of Us

There are times in our lives when we strongly feel the deaths of others around us, the deaths of people we never knew but of whom we knew. For example, in April 2018, Barbara Bush, wife of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, was dying.

When the world anticipates the death of a much-loved leader, celebrity, or person with power or charm, people like you and me may experience unexpected feelings. Memories of this person’s significant contributions and even of her most difficult struggles come to mind. People who never really thought about Barbara Bush in her lifetime suddenly find themselves talking to others about her and detailing her life as if she had lived next door. They wonder, too, how she was feeling, what “comfort care” is like, whether the dying process hurts, how long she would cling to life. Barbara Bush in her final days became more vital to the world’s family than she had seemed to be for a long time.

At such times, we experience a collective form of anticipatory grief. We experienced the same when Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II were dying. And, directly after Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana of Wales, and President John F. Kennedy (and David Bowie, Loretta Lynn, Madeleine Albright, Sydney Poitier, and Naomi Judd)—among so many others—died, many of us felt grief. It’s natural to connect with spiritually strong and famous people who have helped to shape our lives or who have exhibited unusual goodness or courage. In this connection, we become part of a greater, broader, more equal family.

Anticipatory grief causes feelings of impending loss because we know that when this person dies, a light will have gone out of the world, as Jawaharlal Nehru said when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. Such a unique light, once extinguished, cannot be reignited. For a while after this great person’s death, we may experience the grief of the loss. We may feel sad, a little empty, and—maybe most important—we may think about our personal losses a little more often and more distinctly: when a mother has died, how a friend struggles with cancer, even the impending or actual loss of a job or a life-long home.

Connecting our own losses—both past and anticipated—is a natural part of grieving the world’s losses like that of Barbara Bush or other beloved and famous individuals. We are not grieving vicariously but in real time for real connections. It is important to allow ourselves to feel the reality of these losses as significant changes in our lives. It is natural and completely normal to experience sadness, shed tears, feel confused, and even express some anxiety regarding how the world—and we—will continue without this person’s live presence.

We will continue, move forward, and live on.

Anticipatory grief and the grief that follows the loss of someone who has touched the world is natural and healthy. However, if these emotions bring up feelings that are too challenging to process, this experience may present a good opportunity to visit with a bereavement coach or to touch base in a grief support group to address how these feelings are influencing life. As always, we should take care of ourselves, so we can care well for others.

© 2023 Beth L. Hewett


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