What is Anticipatory Grief?

The majority of us have been faced with feelings of sadness and despair, even anxiety, when we know that a loved one is dying. It’s completely normal to feel a wide range of emotions when dealing with a stressful, and possibly life-ending, situation. Known as anticipatory grief, it’s easy to feel shocked and devastated. However, learning how to identify and cope with these symptoms can help each of us make the most of the time that we have left with our loved one and assist in managing other forms of grief that occur when they eventually pass.

The Definition

Anticipatory grief is defined as a wild set of feelings that are experienced by people when facing the looming death of a loved one. These emotions are comparable to that which is experienced after a death and can mirror conventional feelings of grief and despair.

While anticipatory grief is not a topic that is discussed as often as regular grief, realize that it is a normal process. It’s also important to understand that anticipatory grief does not lesson grief that may be experienced after a death, nor is it inevitable when facing a traumatic situation. But it does differ in certain ways from conventional grief.

The National Cancer Institute states, “Normal or common grief begins soon after a loss and symptoms go away over time.” This type of grief usually encompasses feelings of shock, anxiety, anger, depression, and other debilitating systems that affect day-to-day living. However, anticipatory grief is a bit different. This type of grief relates to the fear and pain that one can experience when they imagine what life is going to be like without their loved one. Fears about being alone, losing independence, financial security, social aspects, and myriad other emotions are common. The dying person can also feel anticipatory grief and experience a sense of isolation and fear about what is next.

At the same time, the positive side of anticipatory grief must also be addressed. When handled correctly, these feelings can help family members or friends prepare for what will happen after death. It provides the opportunity to spend time with a loved one, convey forgiveness, love, and inclusion—and then work through the process of letting go.

What are the Symptoms?

Anticipatory grief has many of the same symptoms as conventional grief, including:

  • Sadness/tearfulness
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Guilt
  • Desire to talk
  • Fear
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional numbness
  • Poor concentration
  • Forgetfulness

At the same time, anticipatory grief sufferers may experience:

  • Increasing concern for the dying person
  • Imagining or visualizing what the person’s death is going to be like
  • Getting ready for what life is going to be like once the person is gone
  • Desire to attend to unfinished business with the dying person

How to Cope

Just as that which is experienced with conventional grief, it is possible for anticipatory grief to interfere with your day-to-day wellbeing. Realize that it’s okay to allow yourself to feel this pain. Acknowledge what you are feeling and remind yourself that everything you are going through is more than normal. Experiencing these feelings do not mean that you are “giving up” or love the person who is dying any less. If you are having problems coping with your feelings, try the following:

  • Find a way to express your pain. No matter if this means going to a friend or family member, a spiritual adviser, or an online support group, reach out to someone else and talk about what you are going through. Or, think about other ways to express yourself—possibly through letter writing, drawing or painting, or keeping a journal. Visit helpguide.org for more ideas.
  • Focus on spending time with your loved one. Realize that right now, you can purposefully make the most of the time that you have with your loved one. Do your best to make this time meaningful, not only in the form of making sure practical matters like directives, wills, and estate planning documents are in order, but also telling stories, recording histories, and looking at photos.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional health. Stress and anxiety can wear you down. Make sure you focus on getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and paying attention to emotional needs—no matter if that comes via mediation, prayer, yoga. Take care of you.
  • Read books designed to address caregiver’s needs. There are many books that offer strategies and advice on how to cope with a loved one’s future passing. These books can offer great comfort and help you realize that you are not alone.
  • Express your love, grant forgiveness, and let go. Preparing for a loved one’s passing, and knowing that it is inevitably coming, offers a unique opportunity to say, “I love you.” You can share your appreciation for the person, make amends if necessary, and ensure all unfinished business is addressed. Realize that when a death occurs suddenly, survivors are not afforded this chance, so be thankful that you have this opportunity. Come to terms with what is going to happen, and tell your loved one that they are allowed to do things on their own terms—they don’t have to wait around if they don’t want to. Let them know that you can carry on and that you’ll be okay.
Mary Ellen Wasielewski