Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My dear younger sister has a fatal condition, a 50 percent chance to be alive in one year and a 99 percent chance to be dead within five. She still has a realistic, positive, great attitude.
Me, I’m a puddle of tears. Please help me get through my remaining time with her and actually enjoy it, instead of crying. On one hand, I want my “pre-grief” to last a long time, which would mean my sister is still alive; on the other hand, it’s “killing” me. (She would laugh and say, “No, it’s killing me!”)
After she passes, I can give my grief all the time it will need, but right now, I want to put my “pre-grief” aside. I am impatient to get around this and back to enjoying my time with her.
DEAR FAMILY: Oh. I’m sorry.
Your impatience “to get around this” implies that grief is an obstacle in your path to be removed. It’s not. It is your path now, one that will feel overwhelming and impossible at some times and manageable, even comforting at others. The progression isn’t linear either: You will think you’re through the worst, then get hit with huge sobs over some trigger you were able to shrug off only yesterday. It’s just the way it is.
I lived this during my mother’s terminal illness, and still do after her death. To get through this difficult phase you’re in now – where you want to savor every moment with someone just as your ability to enjoy anything has gone AWOL – I found places away from Mom to take my grief, and visited them frequently so I could focus on Mom when I saw her, versus on myself. One outlet was talking to a therapist weekly. Another was taking day- or overnight trips to see friends (selected for their restorative effect on me; I was not concerned with fairness). Another was exercising. Another was keeping in e-touch with friends who got it but weren’t within visiting range.
You also might find a useful framework in “Ring Theory,” (http://ow.ly/SciiH) so she doesn’t become the one trying to help you feel better.
Hope this helps. Hang in there.
RE: FAMILY: I wrote into your chat in 2014 (http://ow.ly/Sciwp) about my stepfather’s terminal cancer. We knew that any moment Could Be It. I stayed home the first semester of college after his diagnosis to take care of my family – but also went back to graduate after that, then moved to another city, adopted a cat, got my first job, met my now-husband, adopted another cat. It felt like a roller coaster of good and bad, but life kept on moving in real time.
I grieved tremendously during the seven years I had with my dad, and it did not prepare me for when he passed, or for the grief that still sometimes reduces me to a blubbering mess at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon.
Spend time with your sister as those moments come. Be gentle with yourself, rest, enjoy what you can, and also give yourself permission to lie on the living room floor in your sweatpants if you just need to.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.