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What Is Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief can often be as consuming and challenging as conventional grief. Here’s what you need to know.

Posted on May 25, 2022 by Luisa Rollenhagen
Anticipatory Grief

When we talk about grief, we think about emotions that arise after an upsetting and destabilizing loss has occurred, often that of a loved one. However, when a loved one is severely ill and perhaps dealing with a terminal diagnosis, then psychologists often speak of the term “anticipatory grief,” in which one begins mourning for someone even while they’re still alive, in anticipation of their death. This is particularly common during longer periods of severe illness, such as terminal cancer or Alzheimers.

Why does anticipatory grief happen?

Anticipatory grief is the psyche’s way of processing an impending change. Just like you can feel joy at the prospect of an upcoming event, like a vacation or the arrival of a much-awaited new baby, you can feel grief when a sad event is going to happen, like the death of a loved one.

Anticipatory grief can be magnified by the challenges of caring for a dying parent, or by the mental and financial strain that comes from helping a loved one navigate a prolonged illness. While experiencing anticipatory grief can feel as emotionally taxing as “regular” grief, many experts say that anticipatory grief can potentially help you better process the loss of a loved one once it actually does occur. However, there is no consensus on this theory.

While we mostly talk about anticipatory grief within the context of losing a loved one, we also experience anticipatory grief when we know that upcoming life changes are going to happen soon. You can, for example, feel anticipatory grief when you know your best friend is permanently moving to another country in a month, or when you are planning to break up with your partner even though you still deeply care for them. If you’re a parent, you may feel anticipatory grief at the thought of your child eventually moving out of the house and leaving for university, perhaps even in a different country. The owners of pets who are terminally ill can also experience anticipatory grief at the thought of losing their companion.

What are the symptoms of anticipatory grief?

The symptoms of anticipatory grief are very similar to that of conventional grief. These can include behavioural changes such as sudden mood swings, increased irritability, and depression, but also anxiety and despair. Someone experiencing anticipatory grief may become very fixated on the object of their grief, whether that’s a parent or a pet or a child leaving the home.

Physical symptoms can include a change in appetite and sleeping patterns, lethargy, and an inability to concentrate or feeling scatterbrained.

What is the difference between anticipatory grief and grief?

While anticipatory grief is focused on the future, conventional grief arises from something that’s already happened in the past. This means that those experiencing anticipatory grief may feel greater anxiety, since they’re constantly waiting for the dreaded event to finally happen. It also means that those experiencing anticipatory grief may feel more hope that perhaps the scenario they’re dreading can be avoided or remedied.

Healthy ways to cope with anticipatory grief

Just like with conventional grief, it’s important to be kind to yourself and give yourself the time and space you need to process your emotions. One of the best ways to cope with anticipatory grief is to speak to a therapist about your feelings, especially with someone specialized in bereavement.

However, you don’t just have to confide in a therapist. Grief is a universal experience, and everyone has encountered it. Tell your friends and family how you’re feeling. Don’t try to suppress your feelings through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking or using drugs.

It’s also important to not let your grief consume you. Try to do things you enjoy, and do them with people you care about. Whether that’s hiking with friends or cooking an elaborate meal with your partner, there will always be things in life that will uplift you and remind you that you can feel more than just grief.

Never be afraid to speak out if you’re really struggling. There’s always help available, whether it’s individual counseling, group therapy, or even online help groups. Remember that you’re not alone, and that this too shall pass.

Just like with conventional grief, it’s important to be kind

to yourself and give yourself the time and space you need to process your emotions. One of the best ways to cope with anticipatory grief is to speak to a therapist about your feelings, especially with someone specialized in bereavement.

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