Often touted as the most wonderful time of the year, the holidays can bring a mixed bag of feelings for caregivers and their families.

Happiness and sadness co-mingle during family gatherings and, for some, the ruddy glow of Christmas tree lights and Hannukah candles serves only to shed light on the loneliness and pain of spending one final holiday with a terminally ill loved one.

What is anticipatory grief?

"Anticipatory grief" is the term used to describe that grim limbo that occurs in the time between when an elderly loved one is diagnosed with a fatal disease, and when they actually pass on.

According to the National Center on Caregiving, this grieving process can last anywhere from a few weeks to many years. The duration depends mostly on the nature of an elder's illness and a caregiver's connection with them.

Heightened by holiday cheer

Grief is a difficult emotion to deal with at any time. But, the holiday season, with its traditional family gatherings and images of domestic bliss, can present a particularly trying challenge for people dealing with the impending death of a loved one.

In a podcast, Steve Barlam, Chief Professional Officer of LivHOME, a company that specializes in at-home care, says that despite the stereotypical cheer that is supposed to accompany this time of year, the holidays are, "A season that heightens one's sense of loss."

For the elderly, the holidays often bring forth memories of loved ones that they have lost. For caregivers and the younger members of a family, spending the holidays in the presence of an ailing senior can intensify their sense of the impending loss. They know that future celebrations without their elderly loved one will never be the same.

But, being a part of a senior's final holiday celebration, while at times painful, can turn out to be a gift in disguise for family members—if they're willing to confront some unpleasant realities.

Grieving during the holidays

Unlike the grief that occurs after the sudden death of a loved one, anticipatory grief gives a caregiver and their family the opportunity to prepare for the loss.

According to Barlam, facing the fact that you and your family will soon have to make your way without the person who is dying is the first step.

He maintains that, while everyone's grieving process is unique, shying away from the reality of the situation will only serve to make it worse.

Recognizing that an elderly loved one only has a certain amount of time left to live can open the door for discussions regarding end of life wishes and preferred funeral arrangements. While these are not very merry topics, knowing that certain plans are in place can help put both the senior and their caregiver at ease.

Barlam suggests that the family should also try and make the senior the focus of the holiday celebrations. Make sure that they are as involved in the festivities—decorating the household, preparing meals, etc.—as their illness allows them to be. Let them tell stories, share recipes, and engage with the family as much as possible.

The holidays can also be a time for coming together to mend old hurts. Death has a way of putting things in perspective—disagreements and fights seem less important than they originally did. During this time, family members should try to loosen their grip on whatever anger or negative feelings they may have towards the elderly person.

Barlam also says that caregivers should not be afraid to discuss loved ones that have already passed. Talking about Aunt Tess' habit of secretly slipping the family dog scraps from the dinner table shows the senior who is dying that they will not be forgotten once they are gone.

An individual process

No one should feel guilty about their personal grieving process. Some people may grieve for longer periods of time than others. Some may see their sadness come in unexpected waves.

Ultimately, there is no one right way to grieve for a dying elder. It all depends on what's best for each individual. Barlam says that each person in the family will likely be feeling a mixed bag of emotions that can include; fear, pain, anger, sadness, and loss.

If the grief starts becoming too much for a person to handle, it might be beneficial for them to seek the help of a counselor, religious leader, or hospice worker.