No one lives forever.
But it’s so hard to let go. Losing a loved one can be one of the most devastating events in our lifetime.
But your relative is sitting right next to you. Why do you feel so sad/angry/confused?
Loss and grief are part of the human experience. But some caregivers experience something called “anticipatory grief.” These are feelings of grief that can begin well before a loved one passes away.
Some people feel like they are going crazy as they experience the stress related to this kind of grief.
That’s why it’s important to recognize anticipatory grief and learn ways to deal with pain and loss. Doing so has benefits for patients and caregivers alike.
What Is Anticipatory Grief?
Bereavement counselor Marty Tousley writes, “Grief does not wait for death to happen. It occurs both in anticipation of and following a loss. Extended illness, disability, severe accidental injury, a terminal diagnosis, or the aging and decline of an elderly family member can produce what is known as anticipatory grief. We find ourselves reacting and continually adapting not only to an expected loss, but to all the losses — past, present, and future — that are encountered in that experience.”
That’s a heavy load to carry on our shoulders — and in our hearts.
Anticipatory grief keeps us on high alert and can make us feel overwhelmed with financial, medical, and caregiving responsibilities.
Some people even feel that anticipatory mourning is more difficult than the grief we experience after a loved one dies; it’s different for everyone.
But if we learn to recognize and process anticipatory grief, it also can serve a purpose in our life journey.
The Upside of Anticipatory Grief
People who lose a loved one to sudden death often wish they had more time to adjust to the idea of living without that person. Anticipatory grief gives us a chance to understand and accept that this person is going to die.
By processing feelings of grief in a healthy way, you gain opportunities to heal relationships or say things you’ve always meant to say: “I forgive you.” “I love you.”
You can turn anticipatory grief into an emotional rehearsal for what is to come. And learn to appreciate the time you still have with your loved one.
Are You Experiencing Anticipatory Grief?
- Do your thoughts jump from one place to the next?
- Do you feel constant stress, suspense and fear because you don’t know what each day will bring
- Do you experience feelings of loss every day?
- Are you constantly anticipating the endpoint?
Harriet Hodgson, one of the nation’s experts on grief, writes in Open to Hope that these may be signs of anticipatory grief, as you worry and fret about what will happen in the future.
Avoiding difficult emotions can result in suffering: physical, mental, and emotional. We push pain inward, causing anger, numbness, and bitterness.
You can make yourself sick with worry.
Coping with Anticipatory Grief
As former First Lady Rosalynn Carter once said: “There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will become caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.”
Because we all fall into one of those categories, it’s a good idea to explore the terrain of anticipatory grief and develop strategies for coping with this normal reaction to a loved one’s decline and eventual death.
The following are a few ways to process feelings of anticipatory grief:
- Recognize that your feelings are normal and natural. Processing news of death, decline, or illness is different for everyone.
- If your loved one is dying, follow their lead when it comes to discussing the illness.
- Pay attention to self‑care. Caregivers carry heavy burdens and sometimes neglect their own physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. Enlist the help of family and friends to help you eat healthy foods and exercise, take respite breaks, and minimize feelings of isolation.
- If you are experiencing acute symptoms of anticipatory grief, seek help from a physician, grief counselor, or support group.
Loss and Grief
In this Caregiver Training Video, Nancy Reeves, a Canadian clinical psychologist, and spiritual director shares some insights on grief and loss. “I think psychology and spirituality have many areas in common that can support each other,” says Reeves.
Reeves emphasizes that loss is not only the loss of life. We grieve people, places, opportunities. “I’ve seen many people in their senior years who say they really need to come to a more peaceful feeling,” she adds. “When I talk about loss, I mean any experience that restricts us.”
Loss and grief are holistic experiences that can affect us in mental, physical, and emotional ways.
But repressing our feelings makes them “expensive emotions” that take up valuable time and energy.
Confronting and processing negative emotions is part of self‑care.
Be Together Now
When we recognize the symptoms of anticipatory grief, we are better able to cope with the day‑to‑day changes in our lives.
Instead of getting lost in feelings of grief, we can take a step back and enjoy time with our loved ones while they are still with us.
We can find opportunities to slow down, share, and be together.