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.