anticipatory grievingI am beginning to hear, “So what are you doing for the holidays?”

I heard Andy Williams singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” twice yesterday.  Facebook and Instagram will come alive with pictures of get-togethers with children and grandchildren. Pinterest will be bursting with recipes for turkey gravy and Grandmother’s pumpkin pie.

Those who have troubled or no relationships with family will be planning how they will cope during a season that will be very difficult for them.

This holiday season will be the last one where my son is in college – the last one where “Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks” have been officially designated as time when he has weeks off to relax. For me, those weeks mean I can fatten him up, and more importantly, catch up. Get to know who he has become.

Next year is unknown. His job may say, “You get two days.” If he’s lucky.


Short of resorting to trying to wheedle him into graduate school, I have work to do.

It’s time for more letting go.

I wrote about my first and worst empty nest breakdown (which actually began this blogging journey.) As I wandered around the house like a lonely kitten, what pulled me out of my slightly self-centered, sobbing messness was a picture of my entire Robinson family. In it were my four nephews, much older than my son, and their four either wives or serious girlfriends at the time.

I gazed at it, and realized I had watched them all grow up. I had tried to support and honor their reaching out into the world, making the most of opportunities. Finding jobs they cared about, women they loved.

I reached for my seventh Kleenex, and stopped crying.

It was my turn. It was my time to do what my brothers had done, what my parents had done.

My child was no different.

If empty nest is teaching me anything, it’s teaching me humility.

So how do you “let go” exactly? What is one skill in making transitions that you may dread?

I call it “anticipatory grieving.”

Anticipatory grieving is not wallowing in self-pity, obsessing about something painful that is going to happen. It’s not worrying constantly about the future or ruminating that that future is going to be unmanageable.

What is it?

It’s visualizing what will very likely happen in the future, and if it involves loss, imagining how you will cope with it – seeing yourself going through the motions of handling it.

(You could also enjoy “anticipatory celebrating” from time to time, imagining what how you would feel if you got the job, ran a 5K,  painted your first picture or whatever else you are focusing on that is exciting and pleasurable for you.)

That’s called optimism.

How do you do it?

1) Envision the predicted loss.

“I just can’t imagine not having Christmas at my house.”

“I don’t want to think about when my kids are grown.”

“It would kill me not to see my daughter over the holidays.”

Not effective strategies in my book. It’s better to realize that you might fear or be sad about change. But it happens.

2) Feel, for just few moments, the grief or sadness associated with that loss.

For example, every now and then in the coming weeks, I will stick my toes in the emotional waters of the next holiday. 2016. Not for long, for that could easily turn into sabotaging the present. I will let myself feel whatever comes.

But I will visualize how I will handle these feelings. I will come up with potential ideas of how to do things differently, to adjust, to welcome change.

Anticipatory grieving isn’t pessimism. It’s skill-building. It helps you find your courage.

Anticipatory grieving isn't pessimism. It's skill-building. It helps you find your courage.3) Develop creative new ways to structure your life.

As you emotionally practice, see where it leads you.

“How do I want to grow through this? What do I want to learn? How can I help others so we can all enjoy being together?”

Maybe you set up group texting for your family, so that all generations can be part of a fun conversation, or can share more frequently with one another.  Maybe you train yourself on other diverse new ways of communicating with those you love, everything from SnapChat to Periscope to  Skype, so you don’t feel so urgent about or dependent on the holidays.

Maybe you have Christmas in July – if you make it on the 4th, your community will provide entertainment for the kids!

4) Weave important rituals into what is do-able.

If you have had a holiday ritual that you treasure, you can still honor it. Rituals are meant to be meaningful in the moment to those participating. Yet they can also adapt to new times.

If it is bound up in worry or guilt, it loses its joy.

5) Relish the present.

The last thing I want this holiday is to watch everything happen, and think, “This may be the last time it’s ever this way.”

That will ruin it.

If I have have emotionally tried on for size what the future is likely to bring, I can relax and relish what is. It takes practice to learn anything.

Practice feeling what you dread. It can give you strength.


All of this can be applied to any potential loss. You don’t have to wait until you are dealing with empty nest, or illness, people you love moving away, retirement, or even death.

I have had the honor of watching many people face what they never believed would happen to them, or things they had not thought to prepare themselves for.

You can start today.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!


Images courtesy of Unsplash.


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