As a caregiver, you face the reality of your loved one’s condition every single day. Even though they’re still alive, you may have started feeling the pain and gravity of their eventual loss. Often confused with depression, anticipatory grief is a natural and common experience amongst caregivers. Anticipatory grief is to be expected when caring for a loved one with a long term, terminal, or incurable illness.
We usually think of grief as something that happens after someone passes. But there are many forms of grief and many events that can trigger it.
You can experience grief for:
- Missing things as they used to be
- The memory of the person in your care as they were when they were healthy
- The life you had before caregiving
- Freedom you or your loved one once had before a diagnosis or injury
- And so much more.
Grief is incredibly common and complicated. Your experience with grief may differ from someone else’s. It’s important to learn to recognize your grief and learn how to cope with it in a healthy way.
How to Recognize Anticipatory Grief
Before you can deal with your grief, it’s important to recognize your experience for what it is. Here are some of the signs of anticipatory grief:
- Anger and resentment
- Anxiety or depression
- An unreasonable level of fear of the unknown or future
- Fatigue that doesn’t seem to go away
- Sadness and tearfulness that are easily triggered
- Feelings of guilt and longing to change behaviors of the past
- A desire to talk
- Poor concentration
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If you’re experiencing several of these symptoms in combination with your caregiving experience, it is very possible that you are experiencing anticipatory grief. Let’s discuss some healthy ways to cope with it next.
How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief
As we touched on, anticipatory grief is a common experience amongst caregivers. If you suspect you may be experiencing anticipatory grief, here are some healthy ways to cope and move through it.
Be honest about what you’re experiencing
There are likely going to be moments where you feel sad, tired, powerless, or hopeless. It’s OK to be upset, cry, admit that you’re feeling frustrated or angry, and to seek someone to talk to.
Whether it’s a close friend, family member, journal, counselor, or support group, sharing with someone can help you get through the tough moments. A close friend or family member may also be experiencing their own form of grief and appreciate the opportunity to connect and express their feelings. There’s no need to suffer alone. No matter how you choose to express yourself, expressing your feelings can help avoid pent-up anger, resentment, frustrations, etc. that you may otherwise experience.
Recognize the symptoms
Anticipatory grief may show up differently in every person.
Anticipatory grief may first appear as anger. If you’re feeling that life is unfair, the disease or illness your loved one is experiencing is unfair, if you’re experiencing anger over the future not going as you planned, etc., this may be a sign of anticipatory grief.
On the other side of the spectrum, it may first appear as a feeling of relief. You may feel that you look forward to the day when your loved one eventually passes because their experience and suffering is a lot of weight to bear.
In either of these examples, these symptoms, if not recognized, may lead to feelings of intense guilt and frustration. Many caregivers report feeling ashamed of these emotions. Once you’re able to recognize your grief for what it is, it’s easier to forgive yourself and move past the feelings of shame and guilt. Your grief is valid and blameless, no matter how it manifests.
Take it day by day
It’s common to experience a roller coaster of emotions when providing care to an ailing loved one. One day, they may be extremely lucid, creating feelings of happiness and hope. The next day they may experience a downturn, causing hopelessness, frustration, and anger. Every day is different and your emotions from day to day will fluctuate as a result.
This roller coaster of experiences in combination with the understanding that your loved one is dying can create an intense cycle of emotions. Be patient with yourself on the days that are hard and savor the days that are easier.
Additional reading: The ‘IRS of Caregiving’: Information, Respite, and Support
Make memories now
The only guarantee you have with your loved one is this moment. Take this time to create as many memories and experiences as you can. Tell stories, share old photographs, watch old home videos, share dreams, discuss anything you’d like to get off your chest, laugh, cry, and do what you need to do to embrace the time you have left.
If you can’t bring yourself to do this, it’s OK to accept that too. In that case, it’s especially crucial to find someone to talk and share your experience with.
Closing Thoughts on Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief is a deeply personal experience and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. The important thing is to recognize grief for what it is, talk through your experience (even if just to a journal), and begin to make peace now. Take the time you need and be forgiving of yourself through this experience. You are not alone and what you’re feeling, even if it feels like it.
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If you provide regular care to your loved one, we are here for you. As a caregiver, you face new challenges every day. The California Caregiver Resource Centers are a network of eleven independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations across California. We created them 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.