Anticipatory Grief: What Is It & How to Cope
Have you ever thought about how horrible it would be to lose an aging parent or a long-time pet and felt your breath catch in your throat? Or maybe you look at your young, healthy spouse and become deeply sad thinking about losing them one day.
Sometimes it can feel like we're grieving for loved ones before we've actually lost them, whether it's a loss that we know is coming (as in the case of terminal illness and you're working through the five stages of grief) or it's just one that we fear.
This is due to something called "anticipatory grief," and it can be ambiguous and confusing.
In this post, we're going to talk about what you need to know about anticipatory grief, including what it is, why your feelings are valid, and how you can manage it.
What is Anticipatory Grief?
We're all familiar with the general concept of grief, which is the mourning people go through after experiencing a loss.
Anticipatory grief, however, is different. It's grief you feel before you actually experience the loss. You might feel it once you find out that a loved one has a terminal or likely-to-be terminal condition, or when you consider the loss of someone you care about deeply. Sometimes it will be trauma (even if it's just seeing a car crash on the news and thinking about it being a child, friend, or partner) can trigger the grief, though it may be more short-lived in this case.
Anticipatory grief can be just as powerful as grief you feel after you lose someone, especially when that loss is imminent. Some people struggle to feel guilty, because they loved lost the person yet, but know that it is normal as you've already started to wrestle with the loss.
How to Recognize Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief can be confusing. Sometimes, people don't even realize that what they're doing is grieving because the loss hasn't occurred yet.
It can be particularly confusing if there was a long-standing condition (including older age) that made a loss more likely, and they feel that they were mentally prepared for a potential loss. Nothing can ever truly mentally prepare us for the realization of a loss, even if we thought we understood it was coming.
In particular, parents of children who are dying experience intense anticipatory grief. According to a study published in American Family Physician, these families often struggle with intense anger in anticipation of the loss. It’s devastating to consider all the life events and milestones their children will never get to experience, and there’s a complicated mourning process associated with such an unexpected and early end of life.
There are a few common symptoms that can help you recognize anticipatory grief either in yourself or someone you care about:
- Heightened anger at news of a terminal illness or declining medical condition; in some cases, the anger phase of grief is more extended in anticipatory grief than in standard grief
- A profound sense of loneliness, even if you're with others
- Guilt that you aren't able to stop feeling overwhelming feelings of grief, that you can't prevent the loss, and potentially about surviving when they may not
- Hyper-focused concern about the loved one in question, including their emotional state, physical state, and even about what may happen to them after they pass
- A struggle to sleep well, whether it's falling asleep or having a restful night's sleep
- Increased anxiety
How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief
How you cope with anticipatory grief will depend a great deal on the cause and scenario.
Have you been told that a loved one only has a few weeks left to live with no chance of recovery? If so, that will require different management that anticipatory grief you feel after experiencing a trauma that could have been deadly but wasn't.
It's common to experience anger, grief, deep sadness, depression, and anxiety when you have anticipatory grief.
We strongly recommend working with a counselor to help you work through this, no matter what the specific situation is that triggered it. They can give you tools to work through the grief and how to work on adjusting to a loss in your life.
If you are working through anticipatory grief due to an imminent loss for a medical condition, support groups can help. There are support groups, for example, for caregivers and loved ones of cancer or other serious conditions. This can be a wonderful place to make connections, and receive comfort and community.
Remember that even if you are the primary or only caregiver of someone who is in the end stages of life that it's crucial to take care of yourself, too. You'll be better prepared to handle this enormous challenge, both before and after their passing.
You need emotional support for you, too, and anyone else in the family who needs it. Right now, there's an increase in Telehealth therapy sessions and support groups so you can get help and community without leaving the house if necessary.
Any type of grief is immensely challenging and can be deeply painful. Anticipatory grief comes with the added bonus of being confusing and complicated, especially if there's a sense of relief that you'll no longer have to be a caregiver or your loved one will no longer be in pain.
Remember that anticipatory grief is common, and it's a part of the journey of grief when a loss is expected. It can feel overwhelming and impossible, so make sure you get the support you need. It's what you need, and what your loved one would want.
Looking for more resources about managing grief? Check out our blog for more information.