Anticipatory grief is just one of the many different kinds of grief. It’s quite common, yet it’s a type of grief we don’t typically talk about. Let’s break down what causes anticipatory grief, how it’s different from other types of grief, and how we can cope with it.
What Is Anticipatory Grief
We often think of grief as something that only occurs after a death. But grief can start well before a loss has occurred. Grief can happen when faced with the impending loss of a loved one.
It can be because of an illness, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. It also can stem from other factors, such as old age or a loved one having a high-risk occupation or lifestyle.
This period of grief before a death occurs is known as anticipatory grief. While there is no standard process when it comes to grieving, psychologists believe anticipatory grief is natural, and in many cases, a beneficial type of grieving.
The National Cancer Institute explains that anticipatory grief “provides family members with time to gradually absorb the reality of the loss. Individuals are able to complete unfinished business with the dying person (e.g., saying “good-bye,” “I love you,” or “I forgive you”).”
One thing to remember is that anticipatory grief isn’t simply normal grief that starts early. It does share common traits of normal grief, but it’s also a different experience. It’s also important to note that anticipatory grief doesn’t mean families won’t experience normal grief after a death has occurred, either.
How Anticipatory Grief Differs
Anticipatory grief often feels more difficult or intense than normal post-death grief. This is because families begin thinking about the death of their loved one more, causing anxiety about their loved one’s wellbeing and the remaining time they have left with their loved one.
Other aspects of anticipatory grief include:
- Heightened concern for a dying loved one.
- Rehearsal or imagining the death of a loved one.
- Preparation for life after the death occurs.
- Sense of urgency, need to attend to any “unfinished business.”
- High risk of depression or anxiety.
- Exhaustion and fatigue.
- Mourning the loss of a loved one’s independence, stability, identity, and personality.
Ideas for Coping
While anticipatory grief is natural and can help families prepare for an approaching death, there are times when it can become overwhelming.
Here are some tips and resources for how to cope:
- Reflect on the remaining time with a loved one. Talk with a loved one about ways in which you can make the most of the last moments, and how to create more meaning for them. Ask them about their bucket list, or how they would like to be remembered when the time comes.
- Taking care of others starts with taking care of yourself. The worry and anxiety can build up when caring for a loved one. Make sure to set aside time for yourself. Focus on ways to de-stress, such as a meditation group or through therapeutic yoga.
- Seek out support in the community. As a caregiver, you’re not alone. And there are many others who are facing their own anticipatory grief. Look out for local support groups specifically for caregivers, or turn to online communities for advice and resources.
- A terminal illness allows you the opportunity to express love and forgiveness in ways an unexpected death doesn’t allow. But it can still be difficult. If needed, consider using alternative methods of communication such as writing a letter or recording a video to express any difficult or emotionally charged feelings. For more tips on how to talk to a terminally ill loved one, check out this article from HelpGuide.org.