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What It Feels Like to Experience 'Potential Grief'

Throughout my life I’ve experienced various forms of grief. I know what it’s like to be shocked by a trauma and dealt with the grief that follows, but it wasn’t until November of 2015 that I realized there was such thing as “potential grief” as I, alongside my family, watched my grandmother die from lung cancer.

In late October 2015, my grandfather actually fell extremely ill. He had been battling all sorts of different cancers for the better part of his later life and we had all been expecting his end to near. We were all prepared, though we knew it would still hurt; this was my first experience with potential grief, but I didn’t realize there was such a term yet. Suddenly, he got better and all was well in my family until a few short weeks later when my grandmother, who had just been diagnosed in remission, took a turn for the worse and was given six months. Those six months quickly turned into six weeks which then turned into just a week, and that week that my family spent by her bedside was the longest week I have ever experienced in my life… it even included a holiday.

Now, I’m not sure if “potential grief” is a coined term or if it’s just a way I’ve learned to express the built-up pain, but it’s definitely the only way I’ve been able to describe that week even two years later. I know many who have experienced it at least in just my family.

As we’ve all learned at some point in a science class, potential energy is when a body is at rest but has the potential to be in motion, storing the stresses, charge, and other factors within itself. It’s the build-up to kinetic energy or the body in motion. Potential energy is the ball that’s sitting at the top of a slope but hasn’t quite got that push down to be actually set in motion.

That week, we celebrated Thanksgiving as a family in such a somber mood. There was an empty place setting for my grandmother, who was in the hospital (we all knew it would be her last, yet it still wasn’t even her last because she wasn’t there), we all recognized a big change coming (but we didn’t want to speak it), and at any moment we each had the potential to burst into tears. In fact, my cousins and I went to a bedroom after dinner, and that’s where the silence was finally broken: we were all scared to death of death.

Over the next five or six days we sat, partially in denial, in a hospital watching as my grandmother dwindled away. Minutes felt like hours, hours felt like days, days felt like weeks, and that week skipped right over months and simply felt like years. Long years. Years that would age us for better and for worse. As we moved from hospital to hospice and knew her final nights were upon us, the tension only got tighter; the end was coming. We sat with family and friends around the matriarch of our family and shared stories that made us laugh and cry… tensions continued to build, and though nothing had spilled over, our potential grief was at the height of the slope. We were about to finally get that push down the slope to set our pain, our grief, into motion.

That tension that continued to build during that week, the way everything seemed to move in slow motion, and the way time essentially stood still for the majority of us is what I’ve come to recognize at potential grief. It was the moments between breaths where we wondered if the next would be taken. It was the way we looked at each other, not willing to talk about what was next, and knowing the pain we were about to experience was going to be all too real. Potential grief is a thing, and it exists in everyone; that week was a true example for my family and me.

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Thinkstock photo by MrKornFlakes