Anticipatory grief – what it is and how to deal with it

Kate BucklandBlog

Anticipatory Grief

What is anticipatory grief?

We all dread getting the heartbreaking news that someone we love is terminally ill. Did you know that grief over the loss of the person with the terminal diagnosis often starts as soon as we get the bad news? Most people are familiar with the term grief and what it means, but many of us have never heard of anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is mourning a loss of something before it is gone. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard of anticipatory grief that you’ve experienced yourself if you’ve known the loss of someone you love was imminent. Anticipatory grief doesn’t just apply to situations involving a terminal illness such as cancer. You can also experience anticipatory grief when a loved one has an illness that changes their personality, such as Dementia.

Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, but if you do it’s important that you talk to someone to help you deal with it.

What causes anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief can come about for several reasons, and it may not always be the loss of your loved one’s life that you are mourning, at least in the beginning.

When someone you love experiences a life changing or terminal illness, life changes for everyone around them. It may be that you are mourning for the life you had “before”, especially if you have become that person’s carer. It is natural to miss what was and for wish to things to go back to how they were if life has changed dramatically. You may feel that you have lost your sense of freedom and that you are burdened with the extra responsibility of caring for your ill loved one, and this in turn may bring feelings of guilt. However, feeling like this is a very normal response to such a big change to your life. also states that you might grieve for the memories you share with your loved one, particularly as they lose their independence, their memory, and their ability to recognise you. You may grieve for future plans that will never happen and experience intense and conflicting emotions.

Symptoms of anticipatory grief

If you are dealing with anticipatory grief, it is likely that you are experiencing a wide range of emotions about the impending loss of the person you love, or, in the case of a permanently personality changing illness, the loss of the person as you know them before they are truly gone. You may feel anger, fear, resentment, guilt, dread, powerlessness and anxiety even though the person is still alive.

Writer Angie Drakulich shares her experience with anticipatory grief for her father in an article published on the website Psycom. She writes, “[These thoughts and memories] invade my mind as I try to fall asleep and they are the first images that appear when the alarm sounds. They cloud my vision as I drive from home, to work, to the grocery store, and they emerge through tears as I try to get away from it all with a book or old movie. And yet, he’s still here. My dad is still fighting to hold on. Why do I feel as though I’m grieving when he’s not yet gone?”.

How to cope with anticipatory grief

If you think you might be dealing with anticipatory grief, please remember that you’re not alone. It’s so important to reach out to others, and it’s okay to ask for help. Everyone reacts to grief in their own way, and its good to acknowledge that your experience and your way of coping is unique to you.

If your loved one’s condition is advanced, Vince Corso, M.Div, LCSW, CT, who cared for his mother with Alzheimer’s, suggests that hospice care may be helpful for everyone as hospices generally provide services for the family as well as the person at the end of their life. One of the services offered is often grief counselling, which can helpful. He says, “As a disease progresses, there is so much frustration and sadness associated with watching the person you once knew go away. It can be overwhelming.”

You can also find grief support groups or reach out to someone else who is also dealing with anticipatory grief. However you go about getting help, it’s crucial that you are honest about your feelings, even if that means writing it down in a journal.

Something else that can be helpful is to find away to take control. You can’t change the outcome, but you can still find power in action. You may wish to learn all you can about your loved one’s condition. It can also be helpful to help them put their affairs in order, determine what their final wishes are and help them to plan their funeral service or memorial. We are happy to help you with this process – you can find information on pre-arranged funerals here, and read our article about final wishes, complete with free downloads here.

It is important not to stop making memories together. While you may not be able to go through with plans once made, you can still sit in the park or by the water, play a board game or do something simple that you both enjoy. Keep as much normalcy going in both your life and theirs. This is particularly important for you if you are the person’s carer – your life has no doubt changed dramatically, and it is important to keep a sense of normalcy. Don’t stop seeing your friends, keep going to the gym or for walks if that’s something you’re into, or take that class you’ve always wanted to take. And most importantly, reach out to friends for support if you need it. Taking time for yourself is not selfish. In fact, it’s essential in helping you to be a good caregiver. You can’t pour from an empty cup, but so very often we try to anyway!

Where to get help

If you are experiencing anticipatory grief, there are a few places you can turn to for help. The website suggests these organisations: