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When you anticipate the death of a loved one, it’s natural to start the grieving process, even if they’re still alive and with you. It can mimic the path of bereavement grief you’d experience after the death of a loved one, but it is a unique form of grief. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of anticipatory grief can help you and a loved one cope with the situation to make the most of the time you have together.

What is anticipatory grief? 

Anticipatory grief is a unique form of grieving because it is a process that begins while the person you’re grieving is still alive. The symptoms of anticipatory grief can arise in response to many events, such as a loss in the roles in your relationship, the loss of anticipations or dreams of what could have been, or the loss of life as it was.

As WebMD puts it, “Even though the loved one you’ve been caring for is still alive, you may have already started feeling the weight and pain of their loss.” This is a very normal response to many situations – not just the anticipation of death. You may experience anticipatory grief due to a life-altering injury, or a chronic, debilitating, or fatal diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief will be felt differently by each person (and may not be felt at all). Here are some common symptoms.

Signs of anticipatory grief include:

  • Anxiety or anxious thoughts
  • Feelings of dread or fear
  • Sadness or depression
  • Anger, bitterness, or resentment over the situation or your lack of control over it
  • An intense desire for freedom (especially for caregivers) that can lead to feelings of guilt
  • Mood swings
  • Visualizations of the death of your loved one
  • Intense concern for your loved one
  • And more.

One of the main differences between conventional grief and anticipatory grief is that anticipatory grief is usually marked with more anger. Much of this stems from the feeling of being in the middle – not knowing when to hold onto hope or when to let go of it (Source).

How can you cope with anticipatory grief?

When experiencing anticipatory grief, it’s important to recognize it for what it is and realize that it is a normal response to a difficult situation. As a caregiver, you’re likely to experience these feelings in a much more intrusive and/or deeper way, as you’re forced to face the situation daily.

Here are some ways to cope with it:

  • Forgive yourself and allow yourself to feel. Be honest with yourself and how you’re feeling. You’re experiencing many losses at the same time – it’s not just the anticipation of death. It’s compounded with the loss of life as you knew or expected it to be. These emotions are normal, valid, and easier to handle when acknowledged.
  • Find someone you trust to talk to. Whether it’s another family member or friend, a professional, or a support group, having an outlet (and using that outlet) is crucial. One of the most difficult results of anticipatory grief is the feeling of loneliness because you may feel no one could understand (or wants to know) what you’re going through. This may cause you to withdraw from others and intensify the loneliness you’re experiencing.

    One of the best things you can do for yourself and your loved one is to talk, work, or cry through some of these intense feelings and emotions.
  • Find ways to feel more in control. Feeling that you have no control over the situation is, for many, the hardest part. It creates feelings of helplessness, resentment, anger, or frustration. If this rings true for you, try to find ways to create a sense of control.
    • Learn about the prognosis so you can anticipate the experience ahead of time and have a better grasp/understanding when the time of change or death does come. 
    • Spend your time creating memories with your loved one, even reminiscing on old memories counts. 
    • Keep up with your other friends, loved ones, and your normal routine as best you can. 
    • Try journaling, meditation, or another holistic approach for acceptance or emotional understanding.

Even if you don’t have control of the outcome, you can control your understanding of and response to it.

Closing Thoughts

Anticipatory grief is an especially intense and common experience for caregivers who are dealing with a life-ending or life-altering prognosis in a loved one. You aren’t alone, even if it feels like it.

If you provide regular care to your loved one, we are here for you. As a caregiver, you’re faced with new challenges every day. The California Caregiver Resource Centers are a network of eleven independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations across California. They were created with you both in mind and at heart to be a free resource as you navigate the challenging role you’re in. We would love to connect you with your local Center, where they can talk more about local programs for caregivers, answer your questions, and explain how they can best support you.

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