Grief and Loss: Anticipatory Grief

April 04, 2020

Grief and Loss: Anticipatory Grief

Everyone experiences loss at some point in life.  Grief is universal, but no two people will process it exactly the same.  Sometimes we can see a loss is coming before it happens. Our reaction to this approaching event is known as anticipatory grief.  Researchers claim that the period time before a loss can be just as difficult, if not more, than that the time after the loss. 

Anticipatory grief may be felt before a child goes away to college.  Others may experience grief before a change in job, completion of school, or retirement.  Losing physical abilities like sight, hearing, or mobility can trigger these emotions.  The most common reason for anticipatory grief is the upcoming death of a loved one from a terminal illness, such as cancer or dementia. 

Changes from Anticipatory Grief

When a loved one’s death is near, you’re not only experiencing the loss of a person.  You are also facing upcoming changes, like the shift of your role in the family.  For example, if your aging mother passes away, you might become a companion and caregiver to your aging father. Or perhaps you will grieve your identity as your mother’s daughter. Financial changes, positive or negative, can affect your life after loss as well.  When death is looming, you may also grieve the loss of dreams and what could have been. 


Anticipatory Grief Symptoms

We will all experience anticipatory grief in life.  However, understanding this reality doesn’t minimize the pain.  The most prominent symptom is anticipating or dreading the loss to come.  Your thoughts may nag at you.  Worries about what life will look like after the loss are common.  You might spend your time thinking through how you’ll transition and cope with the upcoming loss.


There are also physical and emotional responses to anticipatory grief:

  • Physical symptoms:
    • Bouts of crying
    • Fatigue
    • Weight loss or gain
    • Sleeping problems
  • Emotional symptoms:
    • Fear of discussing grief before the loss
    • Confusion and disorganization
    • Mood swings
    • Anxiety or depression
    • Loneliness (experienced especially by caregivers)

Positive Ways to Cope

There are healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with anticipatory grief.  The following tools can provide you with positive suggestion to prepare for the upcoming loss:

  • Vocalize- Share your feelings aloud or write them down. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about expressing where you are in the grieving process.  Keeping a journal can help guide you through your emotions in the transition.
  • Laugh and cry- Give yourself permission to feel sad or happy. It’s acceptable to cry, even though the loss hasn’t occurred yet.  Also, there’s nothing wrong with retaining a sense of humor.  Laughter and being able to enjoy life will be a gift to you and your loved ones. 
  • Know your strengths- Draw on your dominant abilities in this difficult time. What skills or activities motivate you and bring joy?  Embrace your strengths amidst the sadness.
  • Take a holistic approach- Consider trying more holistic exercises that help your mind and body. Relaxing activities such as doing yoga, listening to peaceful music, or practicing meditation can help you feel more in the present rather than worried about the future.   
  • Be gracious- Many times people don’t know how to help when they see you grieving. They might even say something insensitive or frustrating in their ignorance.  Try not to become irritated if people don’t understand your grief.  Everyone anticipates the loss differently.  Remain open about your emotions and find support where you can get it.   

Anticipatory Grief of a Loved One’s Death

  • Include children- It’s easy to assume kids aren’t hurting because they don’t completely understand what is happening. Talk to your children in an age-appropriate manner about the loss to help them process the event.  Look for comforting and creative ways to say goodbye to their loved one who is dying.  This can benefit both you and your children. 
  • Find time- It may be difficult to spend time with your loved one if they are suffering or having difficulty remembering, but finding meaningful ways to be together is important. Try pulling out a family photo album or watching some old home videos.  These will be memories to cherish as a family.
  • Give permission to go- Often at the end of life, people tend to “hang on” to meet important holidays, birthdays, or events. Give your loved one permission to pass.  Saying goodbye without guilt can be an invaluable gift for you and your loved one. 

Mourning, loss, and anticipatory grief need not be experienced alone.  Some individuals seek spiritual comfort in this difficult time and find solace and strength in their community of faith. Many individuals benefit from participating in support groups that address a specific type of loss.  As always, seek help as needed through your medical doctor or a licensed therapist or counselor.  Anticipatory grief is real, but there are supports in place to help guide you through the transition. 


Want to talk to a counselor today about this? 

Call Amplified Life at 800-453-7733 and ask for your “Free 15 Minute Phone Consultation" with one of our licensed counselors. We’ll listen, answer questions you may have, and help you plan next steps.






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