Anticipatory Grief

While you may not have heard of the term “anticipatory grief,” more than likely you have experienced it. Simply put, anticipatory grief is the emotional, spiritual, and physical suffering of traditional grief, but it occurs before the death of a loved one. In fact, it can begin as soon as you realize death is a possibility.

Anticipatory grief can be complicated by the stress of caregiving, along with carrying on your personal day-to-day responsibilities. Few employers, for example, will give you a couple of days off to rest when you are grieving and few friends will recognize how you are suffering. Anticipatory grief often produces feelings of hopelessness, dread, and anxiety. Your symptoms typically worsen as your loved one declines because of their losses (e.g., independence, identity, daily functioning) and your increased role in providing cares. It’s no wonder that many people feel a sense of relief when their loved one dies (and then feel guilty for feeling relieved).

What can you do (and how can you help someone else)?

  1. Accept that this is normal. Give yourself permission to grieve and take heart in knowing you are not alone.
  2. Disregard well-meaning, but exasperating people who try to minimize what you are experiencing. Focus instead on people who understand. Hospices, places of worship, nursing homes, and funeral homes often provide caregiver support groups. Contact an organization that provides support for a particular disease such as the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, or the Parkinson’s Foundation. Don’t give up if the first group or individual isn’t a good fit for you.
  3. Explore creative expressions of your grief. Many find comfort through journaling, scrapbooking, painting, etc.
  4. Take care of yourself! It’s even more critical at this time to pay attention to your diet, exercise, hygiene, and rest. Don’t put off your own appointments (e.g., doctor and dentist). Get outside.
  5. Ask for help. Friends and other family members often say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Take them up on their offer by asking for specific help—pick up some groceries, stay with your loved one so you can renew your driver’s license, fix a meal, or mow the grass. You’ll be surprised how one helpful act will lessen your stress.
  6. If possible, talk about planning ahead. Having documents (e.g., power of attorney, living will) and funeral arrangements in place will reduce stress and make it easier to carry out your loved one’s wishes. It may be beneficial to talk to an elder law attorney, but others (e.g., hospice social workers, funeral homes, and county offices) can provide help, as well.
  7. Expect some criticism. Some will say that you have given up hope if you start planning ahead. Understand that their criticism may come from their grief, but don’t let that prevent you from acting.
  8. Make for meaningful time with your loved one, their friends, and family. There may come a time when your loved one wants to limit the number of visits, who visits, and/or how long a visit lasts. Respect their wishes. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
  9. Don’t forget the children. Children may experience anticipatory grief, as well. While they don’t need to know every detail, it’s important to be open with them about what’s happening and to give them opportunity to ask questions. They may not always be able to put their emotions into words, but their grief may show itself in mood swings, tantrums, behavior issues, etc. Recognizing that possibility will help you help them focus on the underlying cause.
  10. Give yourself a break. Grief is hard work to begin with, but anticipatory grief may be even more difficult because those around us are less likely to recognize it. There will be times when you feel exhausted, angry, sad, frustrated, broken, hopeless, among countless other emotions. It’s okay! There will be times when you don’t do everything right. Say, “I’m sorry,” “Forgive me,” and “I love you” often…and allow others to say the same things to you.