Meaningful Messages: How to Make Sense of and Cope with Anticipatory Grief
Updated: Apr 17
***Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
The Difference Between Grief and Anticipatory Grief
At some point in our lives, we all lose a loved one – a grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, friend, colleague, or someone else who is important to us. We may also unfortunately lose multiple people at the same time – sometimes rapidly one after the other – and we may be just recovering from one loss before we are emotionally overcome by another. This can leave us feeling heartbroken, stunned, and unsure of what to do next as we try to make sense of what it will be like without them in our lives - not being able to hug them, talk to them, or hear their voice anymore. We can feel confused, lost, and distraught as we try to come to terms with what has happened. Making sense of what seems senseless can be overwhelming and we may hold regrets for what we didn't say or didn't do, feel angry that they have been taken so soon, and perhaps even feel disbelief that they died.
Just as we can feel a huge range of emotions when we deal with grieving the death of a loved one, we can also experience many feelings in regards to anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief involves mourning the loss of a loved one or a person in our lives before they have actually passed away in situations where they have a limited time period left to live.
Symptoms of Anticipatory Grief
When our loved ones have a terminal illness and we are trying our best to cope with their future loss, we might feel hopeless, helpless, and in despair – these are just some of the emotions that may come to the surface.
You might also feel or experience:
a loss of control
a loss of hope
a loss of faith
an understanding that the dreams, hopes, goals, and wishes of this person or that you may have shared together may not translate into reality
sleep issues, work/school issues, family, or social/recreational issues as you might be less motivated or more distracted when engaging in your daily responsibilities, relationships, and activities
relieved that their suffering will end soon and possible guilt about thinking this way
confusion regarding your many mixed emotions
anxiety about your future without this person, particularly if you rely on them for financial security, socialization, personal care, home maintenance, instrumental activities of life, etc.
worry about other important people in your life who will also be affected by the loss
grateful for the time you had with them before their death
relieved for the possible chance to move past longstanding issues between the two of you in their little remaining time, if they agree to let past issues go
numbness or apathy about the dying person if they perpetuated abuse and neglect - this is a complex reaction to past trauma
peace regarding the chance to say goodbye before they pass and reach some sense of closure
and many more feelings and experiences
You may experience one or more of these feelings at any given time – and that is completely understandable. Getting a chance to process what you are going through is a key aspect of your journey towards healing and peace.
Anticipatory Grief is a Unique Journey
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. You may find that you go through a range of emotions over time – or even in one day. Grief is an ongoing process and each person’s experience can be different. If you are dealing with anticipatory grief, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that there are many people out there who are going through a similar experience.
It’s also important to recognize that your experience upon the eventual death of your loved one may be different than what you expected it would be. You may think that anticipatory grief may lessen the impact of grief after death, but this isn’t necessarily the case. The two types of grief experiences may be different – and that’s ok. Just know that it is reasonable for you to allow yourself the emotional and mental space to go through both processes for as long as you need as there is no singular pathway or time limit. You will have good days and bad days. Listen to your mind, heart, and body as you adjust to this challenging life phase and honour what it is telling you day by day.
Anticipatory Grief for the Terminally Ill Person
Another important factor to consider is the anticipatory grief that the terminally ill individual is going through themselves. Turning that form of grief inward can be a complex process as the individual prepares for their own death while also trying to console and comfort the other people in their lives. It can feel like a huge weight on the person’s shoulders as they try to get their affairs in order while being impacted emotionally by the gravity of their situation.
Here are some examples of things that may arise for the individual who is terminally ill:
worry about how their family and friends will cope after they die
difficulty seeing the emotional pain their loved ones are in
not wanting the people in their lives to see them in this state and preferring that they are remembered as being healthy and well
make intentional choices about how to distribute their personal belongings and assets
taking measures to prepare their finances and assets with a formal will and also preparing a power of attorney in case they develop mental incapacity prior to dying
discussing their wishes and preferences for a funeral service, whether they want to be buried, cremated, have their ashes scattered in a location that is meaningful to them, and any other religious or spiritual rituals that they feel are important
they might try to put on a strong front for others at their own emotional expense
worry about the future of their partner, children, siblings, or other family members and friends
sadness regarding the goals and dreams they had that will not be fulfilled
difficulty accepting that their time on earth is coming to an end
feeling at peace that their illness will soon be over
Just like how loved ones may have different experiences with anticipatory grief, this same concept also applies to the person who is terminally ill who is having their own challenges coping with their pending death. Every experience and every response at all points along the grief continuum is valid. It is important to respect your unique journey and know that you are doing everything you can to support yourself while also supporting other important people in your life.
Coping with Anticipatory Grief
The anticipatory grief journey can be very difficult mentally and emotionally. Learning how to cope during this hard time is important for your mental health and well-being.
Some coping strategies that you can consider trying are:
connecting with family and friends for emotional support
getting involved with a peer support group for people dealing with a particular illness, whether you are the ill individual or a family member
seek out support from a mental health professional to help you process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions
consider requesting a mental health leave from work in consult with your doctor if you feel you are unable to assume full work duties at this time
ask that your doctor complete any necessary paperwork in regards to your long term disability claim (if applicable) if you are the terminally ill individual
review your workplace's bereavement policy and ask for clarification if needed
maximize the remaining time with your loved one by doing things that you’ve always wanted to do but didn't get a chance to or do things that you have enjoyed together in your daily lives
make emotional and mental space to focus on the here and now in your time with your loved one rather than focusing on the future or the past
do what feels right to you based on what you need right now
find comfort in the knowledge that you are doing the best you can to cope right now
Remember to love, laugh and live in this cherished time together and enjoy them to the fullest extent. For the person who is a loved one about to lose someone they care about, you will have some lovely memories to look back on in good and bad times to help you reflect on this important person in your life. And, for the terminally ill individual, you can hopefully develop a sense of peace and comfort knowing that you brought as much joy as you could to your loved ones in your final moments – they will value these memories of you forever in their minds and their hearts.
Here are some resources related to grief and loss that may be helpful for you to explore:
Bereaved Families of Ontario
Hospice Palliative Care Ontario
The Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care
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