Anticipatory Grief – What is it & Tips for Coping

Anticipatory Grief

Conventional beliefs would tell us that grief is the range of emotions you feel in the wake of loss; feelings such as sadness, loneliness, shock, despair, anger, fear, and guilt. But for many of us our grieving begins while our loved one is still alive. We start to imagine what it will be like when and after our loved one dies, and we begin to experience the same expanse of emotions as normal grief. Some experts say that anticipatory grief is a good thing because it helps prepare us for the loss, but I’m not sure where I weigh in on that one.

I understand that it’s normal for our minds to go to those darker places, my mind does it even when nobody is sick, and yes in some ways it can help us prepare, but in my experience, being burdened with these emotions can also hinder our ability to be present and cherish the time that we have left with our loved ones.

My mother struggled terribly through the last year of my father’s life because of the anxiety she felt over his impending death. She went through all of the “stages of grief” and began to distance herself from him in preparation of not having him there. Only by taking her out of the role of caregiver and having lots of late night talks were we able to help her reconnect with my dad as his wife, and help her be more emotionally giving and supportive during the last weeks of his life.

Anticipatory grief is typically based on our fears. We fear being alone, losing independence, having to take on things our loved one normally did such as finances, shopping, or house maintenance. We can’t imagine ourselves getting by without them and out of that fear comes our anxiety about our future. Then as a defensive mechanism we begin to grieve that loss to prepare for what is to come.

So the fear is real and it’s perfectly normal to feel that fear and anxiety and to begin the grieving process in preparation for when our loved one dies. But if you are not coping well with these emotions then you may be robbing yourself and your loved one of special moments of love, intimacy, and creating beautiful memories.

So here’s a few tips on coping with anticipatory grief if it is interfering in your day to day life:

Express Your Pain – Find an outlet for your feelings, whether it’s a trusted friend or family member, a spiritual adviser, an in-person or online support group, or some other way of expressing yourself such as journaling, letter writing, or creating art. By acknowledging, accepting, and sharing your feelings they will become less threatening.

Take Care of your Physical and Emotional Health – Combat the stress and anxiety of anticipatory grief by staying physically healthy. Besides getting enough sleep, nutritious food and exercise, attend to your spiritual needs as well, through prayer, meditation, yoga, long walks or whatever works for you.

Spend Time Together Now – The benefit of knowing about a terminal diagnosis it that we have the chance to purposefully make the most of the time we have left with our loved ones. The important thing is to make that time meaningful. Yes we still have to attend to practical matters, but spending time together in ways that are significant to you, whether that’s going through photos or simply being there are a good way to reframe our thoughts.

Read About Other Caregiver’s Stories – Reading books, blogs, forums, and talking to other caregivers allows us to hear about people in similar situations as ours. This can be a great comfort, and offer plenty of practical advise for making it through the day.

Say 11 Simple Words – Author and palliative care specialist, Dr. Ira Byock, explains in his writings that a terminal illness offers you the time to say what is most important to your loved one – Please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you, and I love you. These 11 simple words are exactly what people regret not being able to say when they lose a loved one suddenly.