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What is Anticipatory Grief?

Anticipating the death of a loved one when there is a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness is known as anticipatory grief.

Anticipatory grief refers to a combination of feelings and reactions that occur before an impending loss. Some experience feelings such as anxiety, fear, and exhaustion. For others, the individual anticipating the death of a loved one is typically responsible for their caregiving.  Being a caregiver for someone we love is one of the most intimate relationships we can have, as well as one of the most painful. It opens us up to the most vulnerable and sacred places in ourselves. These feelings can be just as intense as the grief felt after a death.

Anticipatory Grief

You may mourn the loss of the person you are caring for even while they are still alive. The grief you are feeling may not only be for the person who is dying but the life you currently lead. Your life and relationships may have changed dramatically when you became a caregiver. You will have taken on a great responsibility and may find you are no longer able to plan things, which can be stressful and might leave you feeling guilty. You might have fear, anxiety, or panic about “What is going to happen next?” and “How will I manage?” which can take a great toll on your mental wellbeing and stability. This may lead you to feeling unable to concentrate or being distracted. These are normal when you experience anticipatory grief.

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The process of anticipatory grief is described as three stages:

  • Experiencing shock about the upcoming loss

  • Denying the reality of the loss

  • Eventual acceptance

What are the Signs of Anticipatory Grief?

Anticipatory grief is a normal part of mourning when someone is expecting a death. The signs of anticipatory grief are similar to the grief we feel after someone has died. You may be feeling a whole host of things like anger, frustration, desperation, depression, anxiety, isolation, panic, insecurity, guilt, shame or even being fed up. These are all normal and natural to feel as part of the process.

Not everyone will experience this or you might feel reluctant to talk about how you feel because you may think that it will take the focus away from the person who is dying. Although you may feel it is inappropriate to say it out loud, you may wish that it was all over. It is also natural to feel like that. It is important to remember that we all experience grief in different ways.

How Can We Best Use This Time?

Anticipatory Grief includes some differences to the grief we feel after someone has died, and you might experience the following:

  • Increasing concern for the dying

  • Imagining or visualizing what the person’s death will be like

  • Preparing for what life will be like after a loved one is gone

  • Attending to unfinished business with the dying person

 

This time can be particularly helpful for various reasons as it allows time to prepare and time to talk.

  • Allow feelings of grief to help you prepare – understand the stages of grief, how they may affect people differently. Express your feelings through talking to a friend or family member, a counselor or a spiritual or religious mentor.

  • Educate yourself about what to expect – research a particular illness or condition or read about other people’s experiences and how they have overcome similar difficulties.

  • Connect with others may have similar experiences – contact local support groups or charities. Being able to talk about and share your experience with others who have some understanding will help to reduce stress and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

  • Enlist help and continue to live your life – Reach out to services such as hospices and other healthcare providers for help and advice. They can offer professional support and guidance with additional care, funding, and other financial, medical and psychological support you may need.

  • Include your friends and family- keep them updated on what is going on and don’t forget to ask for help and support from them too.

  • Create moments your loved one can enjoy – looking at photographs, reminiscing of fond memories and telling stories, playing your favorite games, listening to your favorite songs together.

 

You will be experiencing feelings and emotions which may be distressing and difficult to manage, however, you can minimize the anxiety and stress of anticipatory grief by staying physically and mentally healthy.  Here are some helpful practices and you can do whatever you feel works best for you:

  • Manage your stress

  • Be realistic

  • Give yourself credit, not guilt

  • Take a break

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Accept that there will be changes in your loved one’s health status

  • Know you aren’t alone