When the Dying Belongs to All of Us
Updated: Jul 14
It is April 2018, and Barbara Bush, wife of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, is dying.
When the world anticipates the death of a much-loved leaders, celebrities, and persons 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 has lived next door. They wonder, too, how she is feeling, what “comfort care” is like, whether the dying process hurts, how long she will cling to life. Barbara Bush in her final days becomes more vital to the world’s family than she has seemed to be for a long time.
We are experiencing a collective form of grief called “anticipatory grief.” We did the same when Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II were dying and directly after Princess Diana of Wales and President John F. Kennedy died. We connect with famous and spiritually strong 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 afterthis great person’s death, 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’slosses 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 a bit anxious regarding how the world—and we—will continue without this person’s live presence.
We will continue, move forward, and live on.
Anticipatory grief is natural and healthy. However, if it does bring up feelings that are too challenging to process, it 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.
© 2018 Beth L. Hewett, PhD, CT