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How to Cope With Anticipatory Grief

Grief is not always something that happens after death. For many people, it often begins long before death arrives, many times as soon as a person becomes aware that death is a likelihood. When an ending is on the horizon, even if it’s still a long way away, it’s natural that we start to grieve.

Anticipatory grief is different from the grief that follows losing a loved one, but it can carry many of the symptoms of regular grief, including sadness, anger, isolation, forgetfulness, and depression. Coupled with these complex emotions, a person often feels exhausted as a caregiver.

The important thing to remember is that anticipatory grief is a normal process, and there is always a way to cope and come to terms with it

What is anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief is defined as “any grief occurring before a loss, as distinguished from the grief which occurs at or after a loss.”

Knowing that a loved one is slipping away and there’s nothing you can do to stop the decline can be frustrating. It could trigger grieving their loss long before they’re actually gone.

There are, however, things you can do to prepare for the imminent death of a loved one or the end of your own life.

Grieving an impending loss of a loved one

Anticipatory grief is the grief we privately feel before a loved one passes away. We used to call it preparatory grief. It is how our mind, heart, and soul prepare for the impending loss of a loved one.

We are more accustomed to talking about grief after a loss, but anticipatory grief is more non-verbal. We tend to keep those thoughts to ourselves, but once the death occurs, you might feel sudden guilt for grieving their loss before they died.

Facing your own death and grieving

Knowing death is not far away may take an emotional toll on a person with a terminal illness. You might feel shocked or scared. You might also feel guilty about being a burden or worry about how your death will affect your loved ones left behind.

Other common concerns include fear of a painful or unpleasant afterlife, fear of the unknown, and fear of the loss of dignity or individuality.

When you’re facing your own death, it’s an emotional time. While it might be hard to talk about your feelings, you must try to address these issues to better prepare for death.

What is the difference between grief and anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief is similar to grief after death in some ways, but it is also very unique in others. Grief before death often involves more anger, loss of emotional control, and atypical grief responses.

Feeling anticipatory grief can be confusing because you’re trying to find the delicate balance between holding on to hope and letting go.

Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, and whether you do or not is neither good nor bad. Some people experience very little grief and often find they’re not allowing themselves to openly grieve. They often believe this might be construed as giving up. On the other hand, some people experience severe feelings of grief.

How COVID triggers anticipatory grief

Grief is a very complex emotion and much more than merely a response to losing someone we love. Coping with any kind of loss can involve a grief process, even when the loss isn’t something physical.

COVID-19 has and is still affecting people in so many ways, one of which is experiencing a feeling of grief. Grief and mourning during a pandemic can occur when we know the world around us will never be the same, but we can’t put into words what we’ve lost or will lose.

Some of the things we miss include a sense of normalcy, connection, routine, and certainty about the future. We may have already lost jobs or loved ones. All of these things can be difficult to come to terms with.

If you’re not sure how to navigate this form of grief, there are some things you can do:

  • Validate and affirm your feelings as there’s no reason to feel ashamed or critical of the emotions you’re having.
  • Take good care of yourself by staying fed, hydrated, and rested.
  • Connect with others, even if you think they might not understand.
  • Prioritise rest and relaxation.
  • Express yourself with a creative outlet.
  • Talk to a professional.

Symptoms of anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief includes many of the symptoms of conventional grief. The grief process generally progresses through various stages, and every person may experience it differently. Some of the anticipatory grief symptoms you might experience include:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • A desire to talk
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional numbness
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Poor concentration or forgetfulness
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Increasing concern for the person dying
  • Preparing for what life will be like after a loved one is gone
  • Imagining or visualising what the person’s death will be like
  • Attending unfinished business with the dying person.

The 5 stages of anticipatory grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, analysed five anticipatory grief stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She used this model to describe the process people undergo after learning of their own diagnosis of a terminal illness.

  • Denial: You may feel unable or unwilling to accept that the loss of your life will shortly take place. It might feel like you’re in the middle of a bad dream and are waiting to wake up, and things will be normal, and your diagnosis was a mistake.
  • Anger: You might become angry at yourself for the disease or at a higher power for letting it happen. Feelings of abandonment might also occur, and it could be a severe test of your religious beliefs.
  • Bargaining: You beg your higher power to change things. This stage often involves promises of better behaviour or significant life changes.
  • Depression: When you realise anger and bargaining are not going to change things, you have to confront the inevitability and reality of death and your inability to change it. You may find yourself crying, experiencing sleep or eating changes, withdrawing from relationships and activities while you process your impending death.
  • Acceptance: This final stage is when you’ve processed your initial grief emotions and can accept that death will occur and cannot be stopped. Now you’ll be able to make plans for your impending death and re-engage in daily life.

Anticipatory grief and children

Just like anticipatory grieving in adults, children can also experience this complicated emotion. Anticipatory grief in children happens when they learn that someone close to them is going to die.

Normal feelings include shock, devastation, confusion, and fear. They might find it hard to concentrate and feel different from their peers who are not going through this life-changing event.

However, when such an event is imminent, there is the opportunity to talk to the child about death and other vital issues, spend time with the loved person, finish unfinished business, share memories, and make more. There is also time to show love, forgive and be forgiven, and express gratitude for a life shared.

Coping with anticipatory grief

If you’re not sure how to navigate anticipatory grief, there are some things you can do. First of all, it’s essential to express your pain and let yourself grieve. It will be extremely helpful to find a friend or another loved one to share your feelings openly with.

You may discover a creative outlet especially valuable at this time. Something that helps you process what is happening, whatever that outlet might be.

Here are some more things that might help you manage:

  • Building a support group or finding an existing caregiver support group
  • Reading or listening to stories of how others coped
  • Practising forgiveness and love
  • Spending quality time together
  • Taking care of your own emotional and physical health

Anticipatory grief counselling

It’s easy to fall into thinking you’re alone, but this is far from the truth. Many other people are going through a grief process, particularly during this time of rapid change and collective fearfulness.

If your grief just won’t go away, you’re worthy of support. If you need professional assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out for help and advice.

If you need advice or want to start making arrangements for a funeral, our dedicated team offers expert guidance and support.