“What to expect when you’re expecting.” That was the name of the go-to pregnancy book back in the day. The title has always stuck with me. What is it we expect of our expectations? Or to use a current phrase, how do we manage our expectations?
Just in case you have great expectations that this article will give you some one size fits all answers to the challenge of how to manage expectations let me expectorate on your expectations right now. Life, like pregnancy, like parenthood, like death, like basically everything, is unpredictable. So maybe expecting the unexpected is the only expectation worth expecting.
When Mum was taken to the hospital in February with some serious brain bleeds, the doctors tried to manage our expectations by letting us know that IF Mum pulled through this, she MIGHT not be lucid and might never regain her previous quality of life. Here are some of the things I noticed about expectations through this experience.
1. Reality Check
It’s hard to be told by doctors in a detached (professional) way that your Mum might not make it. This is MY MUM you’re talking about. As hard as it was, it was a necessary reality check to start preparing for the awful eventuality. It was real time. Left to my own devices I’m sure that denial’s delusion would overtake my expectations, which could affect all sorts of things from making poor medical decisions to not properly saying goodbye.
Someone, but probably not Shakespeare, said
“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”
Hope can be a dangerous thing. It sometimes just sets us up for disappointment. Surely we need acceptance more than expectations.
Byron Katie said, “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time.” My first lesson on expectations was that managing expectations has to include the cold, hard face of reality staring you down. But then again, who decides what is real? And doesn’t reality turn on a dime anyway?
2. Stay Open
You with me so far? Here is where the waters get a bit muddied. Mum made it out of hospital in February and by March was almost completely back to her normal self. It was the most amazing recovery. It was as if Mum stared down reality in the hospital and said, “Nuh uh, not now, not yet.”
Word from the doctors was that anything could happen. Mum could have another bleed any day and pass suddenly. Or else she could live on for years. Mum would deteriorate, but don’t we all? And Mum was 82.
With each passing day, it was virtually impossible not to start hoping (even expecting) that all was fine. We started making plans again. Mum started to fill her days with everything she loved, and all our managed expectations started to fade away.
I learnt that the other side of being realistic (managing expectations) is staying open. There were so many things I wanted to control. I wanted to put Mum on ice and make sure she was around for a long, long time. Mum died in August. Her last day was long and full. This was the reality she created for herself, a free spirit to the end.
Maybe alongside managing our expectations with reality, we need to raise our expectations to a new reality, live from the future we want more than the one we feel we’ve been handed.
There’s a great line from Bryan Cranston’s character in Trumbo,
“What the imagination cannot conjure, reality delivers with a shrug.”
Expectations exist in the space between imagination and reality. It’s a big open space, full of everything; surprise, heartache, disappointment, elation, regrets and leisurely lunches.
3. Drop The Bundle
Just in case this all sounds too neat and easy let me assure that six months later I still haven’t worked out how to live in this new reality that doesn’t include Mum. Outwardly, I’m mostly fine. Inwardly I’m mostly a mess.
If expectations are a bundle, I’ve dropped them many times. Some of what I miss about Mum is pure and healthy, like my sadness when she isn’t present for milestones and gatherings. Some of what I miss is my own shit. I can’t replace 47 years of unconditional affirmation and need to find it within, like I’ve always said to everyone else.
There are no rules for this experience, no blue prints and no shortcuts. Expect the unexpected in grief, as in life, as in death. That’s all I’m left with. So let me leave it there.
ps, if you are going through your own experience of grief, my heart goes out to you. To help navigate your way through grief, please click here to get your Healing Grief seeds of encouragement.