What is Anticipatory Grief, and How to Deal with It

What is Anticipatory Grief?

Anticipatory grief, while similar to the typical mourning process, differs in that it occurs before the actual passing. The impending death brings about its onset, which the family and loved ones can experience as the dying person. 

Such grief arises from a diagnosis of terminal illness or a life-threatening condition where death is a looming possibility. The stages of anticipatory grief are similar to those experienced in normal mourning. 

How each individual and family deals with grief, illness, and death is unique. Mourning is typically associated with the loved ones of the dying. At the same time, anticipatory grief is felt by those who are aware of the impending death.

Anticipatory grief definition is grief that occurs in anticipation of a death or other type of loss — such as the loss of abilities or independence.

Why is it Important to Know about Anticipatory Grief

The emotions in this stage can be intense and overwhelming, making it crucial to recognize them and seek support when necessary. Understanding the four phases of anticipatory grief is also essential to cope with the emotions constructively.  

In Phase I, individuals come to terms with the inevitability of death, which may trigger feelings of sadness and depression. Phase II is characterized by concerns for the dying person, such as regret over past arguments or disciplining actions taken towards them. 

The dying person may also experience anxiety about their mortality and worries about the emotional responses of loved ones.  Phase III involves “rehearsing” for the actual death, including concerns about the physical process of death and what may happen after it. 

This stage may also involve making funeral arrangements and saying goodbye to loved ones. Finally, in Phase IV, loved ones may start imagining what life will be like without the dying person, such as the unfulfilled dreams and missed milestones.

Memorial Diamond

Everyday Experiences of Anticipatory Grief

Emotional and psychological responses

This type of grief is often associated with feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, and helplessness. People who are experiencing anticipatory grief may find it challenging to cope with their emotions, especially as they continue to care for their loved ones.

One of the most common emotional responses to anticipatory grief is depression. People may feel a sense of hopelessness and despair as they come to terms with the fact that their loved one will soon pass away

They may also feel a sense of guilt if they feel that they did not do enough to help or support their loved one. Anxiety and fear are also common emotional responses, as people worry about what the future holds and how they will manage without their loved one.

Psychologically, anticipatory grief can also affect a person’s ability to concentrate and make decisions. It can lead to feelings of detachment and emotional numbness, as people try to distance themselves from the pain and sadness they are experiencing.

Physical symptoms

Anticipatory grief can also have physical symptoms that can impact a person’s daily life. These physical symptoms can range from fatigue, insomnia, and headaches to loss of appetite, weight loss, and digestive issues. People may also experience aches and pains, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

The stress associated with anticipatory grief can also weaken the immune system, making it easier for people to get sick. They may experience more colds, flu, or other infections than usual. Chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes can also worsen under the strain of anticipatory grief.

Social and behavioral changes

Anticipatory grief can lead to significant social and behavioral changes in individuals. People may withdraw from social activities and events, including those they once enjoyed. They may also become more irritable, short-tempered, or easily frustrated, making it challenging to interact with family, friends, and colleagues.

Anticipatory grief can also affect a person’s ability to work and perform daily tasks. They may find it challenging to concentrate, make decisions, or remember important information. It can also impact their communication skills, making it difficult to express themselves clearly or to listen to others.

Who experiences anticipatory grief, and when?

Patients with terminal illnesses

Patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, such as cancer, are likely to experience anticipatory grief. The diagnosis of a terminal illness can lead to a range of emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and depression. Patients may start to grieve the loss of their future and the things they will no longer be able to do. They may also start to grieve the loss of their independence, as they may require assistance with daily tasks.

Anticipatory grief can also arise from the uncertainty of the future. Patients may worry about their loved ones and what will happen to them after they pass away. They may also feel guilty for burdening their loved ones with the responsibility of caring for them. Patients may also grieve the loss of their identity, as they may no longer be able to do the things that defined them as a person.

Caregivers, family members, and friends of those with a terminal illness

Caregivers, family members, and friends of those with a terminal illness also experience anticipatory grief. They may feel a sense of helplessness and frustration as they watch their loved ones suffer. 

In addition, caregivers may also experience anticipatory grief over the loss of their role as a caregiver. They may worry about their ability to provide adequate care and support, and feel guilty for any mistakes or shortcomings. 

Individuals facing significant life changes

People facing significant life changes, such as divorce, retirement, or the loss of a job, may also experience anticipatory grief. These changes can lead to a range of emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and sadness. 

They may start to grieve the loss of their identity, as their roles and responsibilities may shift. They may also grieve the loss of their future and the things they had planned to do.

Anticipatory grief in these situations can be particularly challenging, as the future is uncertain. Individuals may feel overwhelmed by the unknown and struggle to make sense of their emotions.

anticipatory grief

Scenarios that May Provoke Anticipatory Grief

There are many scenarios that can start the onset of Anticipatory Grief, below, we have given a list of the 9 most common scenarios that are associated with anticipatory grief. 

1. A Degenerative Disease

A diagnosis or the progression of a degenerative disease can trigger anticipatory grief in individuals and their loved ones. The gradual loss of abilities and independence can create feelings of helplessness and sadness as they anticipate what is to come.

2. Palliative Care

End-of-life care can cause anticipatory grief in both patients and their loved ones. As the patient’s condition deteriorates, their family and friends may start to feel a sense of loss, even before the patient passes away.

3. Caring for Children with Chronic Disease

Caring for children with chronic disease can cause anticipatory grief for parents and caregivers as they struggle with the knowledge that their child’s condition will likely not improve. The fear of losing their child can be overwhelming, and the anticipation of what is to come can be challenging.

4. Genetic Cancer Risk

Hereditary cancer risk can create anticipatory grief in individuals who have a family history of the disease. The fear of developing cancer and the anticipation of future treatments and potential loss can be challenging to manage.

5. Awaiting an organ transplant

Waiting for an organ transplant can create anticipatory grief in individuals and their loved ones. The uncertainty of when the transplant will occur and the fear of rejection or complications can create a sense of loss before the procedure even takes place.

6. Amputation

Amputation can create anticipatory grief in individuals as they anticipate the loss of a limb and how it will impact their life. They may feel a sense of loss and sadness as they anticipate the changes that are to come.

7. The Impending loss of a pet

The impending loss of a pet can create anticipatory grief for pet owners who are facing the end of their pet’s life. The bond between pets and their owners can be incredibly strong, and the anticipation of their pet’s passing can be challenging to manage.

8. Life Changes

Life changes, such as a new job or geographic move, can create anticipatory grief as individuals anticipate the changes and challenges that come with these transitions. They may feel a sense of loss for what they are leaving behind, even as they look forward to what is to come.

9. Anticipatory Grief Related to Pregnancy

Anticipatory grief related to pregnancy can occur in women who have experienced infertility or other pregnancy-related complications. The fear of losing the pregnancy or the baby can be overwhelming, and the anticipation of what is to come can be challenging to manage.

anticipatory grief

Anticipatory Grief vs Conventional Grief: What’s the Difference?

Grief is a natural emotional response to loss, and it can be experienced before or after the loss occurs. Anticipatory grief is the process of grieving the loss of experiences, possibilities, or an imagined future before the expected loss actually happens. 

This can be experienced by individuals diagnosed with a terminal illness or those facing the death of a loved one. Anticipatory grief may be related to feelings of loss for the life you currently lead, rather than the person who is unwell. 

On the other hand, conventional grief is experienced after a loss, such as the death of a loved one. While anticipatory grief can be similar to conventional grief in terms of the emotions experienced, it is often not as widely understood or discussed. 

It’s important to recognize and talk about feelings of anticipatory grief, and seek support to help cope with these feelings. Whatever your feelings and whether they occur before or after a loss, it’s important to accept how you feel, find ways to cope, and ask for help when you need it.

Coping Techniques for Anticipatory Grief

Acknowledge & Validate your Emotions

When experiencing grief, it’s important to acknowledge and validate your emotions. Understand that grief is a natural response to loss and that everyone experiences it differently. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up and know that it’s okay to grieve in your own way and at your own pace

Seek Support From Others

Seeking support from others can be helpful when grieving. This can include talking to friends and family, joining a support group, or seeing a therapist. Having someone to talk to can help you process your emotions and provide comfort during a difficult time.

Maintain self-care practices

Maintaining self-care practices is important when grieving. Taking care of yourself can help you manage the stress and emotions that come with grief.

Engage in meaningful activities

Engaging in meaningful activities can also be helpful when grieving. This can include volunteering, pursuing a hobby, or spending time with loved ones.

Focus on the present moment

Focusing on the present moment can help when dealing with grief. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing, can help you stay grounded and present. It’s important to acknowledge your emotions but also try not to dwell on the past or worry about the future.

Consider seeking professional help

Consider seeking professional help if your grief is overwhelming or interfering with your daily life. A mental health professional can provide guidance and support as you navigate the grieving process. They can also help you develop coping strategies and provide tools to manage your emotions.

anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief: Conclusion

Anticipatory grief is a natural emotional response to an impending loss, such as the death of a loved one. It can be a difficult and overwhelming experience, but it’s important to acknowledge and validate your emotions, seek support from others, maintain self-care practices, engage in meaningful activities, and focus on the present moment. 

It’s also essential to consider seeking professional help if feelings of anticipatory grief are very intense or interfere with daily life. By taking care of yourself and seeking support, you can cope with anticipatory grief and find ways to process your emotions before and after your loved one’s death. 

Remember, everyone’s experience of grief is unique, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and seek help when you need it.

Creating physical reminders of your love can also be helpful, like creating memorial jewelry, urn necklaces, or memorial diamonds.



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