How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief

What is Anticipatory Grief and How to Deal with It

An encounter with grief is a universal human experience. At some point, we all come face to face with some version of it. While some people may be quite familiar with grief, each instance is unique. No two encounters are alike because the relationships we share with loved ones are one-of-a-kind. Sometimes, the loss of a loved one can be unexpected. Other times, we may see an impending loss coming weeks, months, and even a few years down the road. This later form of grief is known as anticipatory grief. In this article, we’ll explore the nuances of anticipatory grief and look at ways to cope with this emotionally challenging journey.

What is Anticipatory Grief?

Also known as preparatory grief or anticipatory loss, anticipatory grief is the distress a person may experience in the days, weeks, months, or years leading up to the loss of a loved one or another significant, impending loss. Those encountering anticipatory grief are keenly aware that a big change is coming, and they begin to experience grief before it occurs. A common example of anticipatory grief is when a family member or friend is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The awareness of an inevitable goodbye starts to permeate the emotional landscape for those witnessing this challenging situation. While an encounter with anticipatory grief may feel odd or unsettling since the loved one is still alive, it is a legitimate and intrinsic part of the grieving process that needs to be acknowledged and honored. With anticipatory grief, individuals gain a valuable opportunity to prepare for the emotional impact of the eventual loss. There is still time to express love, say goodbye, and even create meaningful memories before a loved one’s inevitable departure.

Anticipatory Grief Symptoms

By recognizing the symptoms of anticipatory grief, the bereaved can understand the emotional and psychological impacts it can have on them. Here are five common ways anticipatory grief can express itself:

Sadness and Depression

Witnessing the decline of a loved one’s health can lead the bereaved down a path of helplessness and despair. For some, anticipatory grief can bring about deep sadness and even clinical depression.

Anxiety and Fear

With a big change looming, an impending loss can trigger fear and anxiety about the future. The mind of the bereaved may be overwhelmed by several worries, such as how to cope with the loss, how they’ll be able to carry on with their lives, and how to manage the void left in the departed’s wake.

Physical Symptoms

The acute or chronic stress of the upcoming loss may wreak havoc on a grief-stricken person’s health. Nighttime can be extremely challenging for those alone with their thoughts and worries. It may be difficult to quiet the mind enough to get adequate rest, leaving them extremely fatigued and worn down. The appetite can be affected as well. With acute stress, individuals may lose their appetite completely, while chronic stress sufferers may overeat to manage their pain.

Preoccupation with Loss

Those experiencing anticipatory grief may find themselves preoccupied with thoughts of loss. With their focus mainly on the eventual loss, the bereaved may have difficulty concentrating on other tasks like getting dressed or packing a bag.

Emotional Withdrawal

As the weight of anticipatory grief bears down on an individual, they may begin to withdraw emotionally as a way of protecting themselves from the pain. The withdrawal can strain relationships, affecting family, friends, and even the terminally ill person.

Anticipatory Grief vs Conventional Grief

Anticipatory grief and conventional grief are on opposite sides of the doorway to loss. While anticipatory grief grieves the possibility of loss, conventional grief is experienced after the loss occurs. Both have unique challenges. With anticipatory grief, the bereaved live with the day-to-day stress of knowing a loved one’s health is rapidly deteriorating. The quality time that remains can be used as an opportunity for closure before the loss. For those encountering conventional grief, closure is interwoven into the loss itself. Both versions of grief can be an adjustment to new roles. For instance, bereaved individuals of terminally ill loved ones may have taken on caretaking responsibilities and duties. Conventional loss may be more focused on adapting to life without the departed.

How to Deal with Anticipatory Grief

Witnessing the deterioration of a loved one’s health can be painful and confusing. For those experiencing anticipatory grief, it’s important to acknowledge any feelings that come up without judgment. As difficult as it may be to face our thoughts and feelings on grief, it’s an essential step to healing. With all forms of grief, it can be hard to predict which emotions may rise to the surface. At times like these, leaning into the love and support of those closest to you can be very helpful. Genuinely expressing yourself in a safe environment is an essential safety valve for relieving stress and anxiety associated with anticipatory grief.

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