Last week I asked my mother if there was something she thought I should write about in my column. Quick to reply, she said, “How does one cope when their spouse is dying?”

“What do you mean by cope?” I asked.

“Are there things I should do? Are there ways to prepare for what is to come?” she replied.

Our family has spent 20 years thinking about my father’s final days, ever since his Parkinson’s diagnosis. In the last few years, we have prepared practically, legally and financially for the end of his life.

The one scenario we’ve not tackled: How should we be feeling as my father’s death draws near?

Of course, this is a deeply personal question. Culture, religion, beliefs and values are but a few things influencing our attitude toward dying, death and grieving.

I explained to my mom that, for me, I comfort myself by thinking that my father will be in a better place; he will be able to walk the dog again, ride the bike trail, swim in the lake and visit his departed parents and sister.

My mother told me that she didn’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, so that thought was not one that would comfort her. Hmmm. How do I help?

I took some time to talk with one of our staff, Laurian Phillips, a case manager at two low-income senior housing units we serve. She is also a bereavement counselor.

After learning of my mother’s German background, her strong work ethic and the fact that she doesn’t express her emotions to others, Phillips’ first suggestion to me was to see if my mother felt comfortable that all the practical items were covered.

She explained that, for certain people, knowing in advance what will be required after death is comforting. For these folks, Phillips provides a checklist like the Surviving Spouse Financial Checklist found here: pdf/survivingspouse.pdf.

Next on her list was a suggestion for me: “Ask your mother, ‘How can I support you, Mom? What would comfort you?’”

She explained that asking this question accomplishes two things.

“First it encourages your mother to get in touch with her feelings about what she wants and needs, and secondly it encourages you to really listen to what is meaningful to her,” she said.

Anticipatory grief refers to a grief reaction that occurs before an impending loss of someone close. With anticipatory grief, the feelings of pain and loss occur when we imagine what life will be like without our loved one. These fears can include the fear of being alone, fear of losing independence or fear of losing our social life.

Anticipatory grief has a positive side, however: It can help family members prepare for what will occur after death.

Phillips explained that grief is an uncomfortable and scary emotion and that the brain and the heart will need a break from the stress of grief, if only for a few moments.

“There are some people that find comfort in meditation, breathing exercises or journaling,” she said. “If that is not comfortable for your mother, even something as simple enjoying the smells and tastes of a favorite meal or walking in the garden will give your mother’s mind and heart the respite it needs.”

Phillips draws a squiggly map for me and tells me that grief is a nonlinear roller-coaster ride. She encourages all my family to talk openly and often. She offers me her mantra—that love, forgiveness and gratitude will bring comfort to both the grieving and the dying.

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