Grief before death: understanding anticipatory grief

Grief before death, understanding anticipatory grief. When thinking about grief, we mostly associate it with the sinking feeling we experience once a close friend or relative has passed away. However, the range of emotions we go through when losing a loved one can be quite complex and it takes many forms – including anticipatory grief. From the term, this might sound like regular grief experienced earlier, but it’s so much more than that.

This form of complicated grief encompasses the feeling of impending loss we experience when we learn that someone we care about will soon pass away, combined with shock, disbelief, fear and loneliness. Unlike normal grieving, whose symptoms are known to most people, anticipatory grief is not so discussed, it manifests in more subtle ways, and learning how to recognize it is key if we want to enjoy the time we have left with our loved one.

When does anticipatory grief occur?

Anticipatory grief starts to settle in as soon as we learn that someone we care about will soon pass. It can be experienced when an elderly relative can no longer look after themselves and we realize that we will soon have to deal with their death. Or, it can be experienced when a loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness and has little time left to live.

Not everyone who learns that a loved one will pass away experiences anticipatory grief and, if they do, this does not mean that they will be dealing with death in a different way or that the grieving period will be shorter. The term only refers to the range of emotions you experience prior to the passing and it may influence your relationship with that person.

Signs and symptoms of anticipatory grief

Losing a loved one can be an emotionally traumatic event that we never really understand until we go through it. Similarly to normal grieving, anticipatory grieving can be experienced in different ways by different people, but the most common signs and symptoms include the following:

  • A feeling of pain and loss knowing that the loved one will soon leave us
  • Persistent sadness and anxiety that can evolve into depression
  • Loneliness – especially if the dying person is a close to us, such as a spouse or parent
  • Guilt – knowing that someone will soon pass away can trigger feelings of regret for things that happened in the past, for not being the best spouse/friend/child.
  • Increasing concern for the dying person, feeling worried all the time, visualizing how they will pass away and how your life will be impacted by this event.

Coping with anticipatory grief

Feeling sad upon learning that a loved one might soon leave is completely normal; it means that you love them, that you’re sorry to see them go and that you care for them. However, it’s equally important to cope with anticipatory grief and deal with losing a loved one in a healthy way, without neglecting your own mental health:

  • Make the most of the time you have left. Be there for your loved one, make every encounter meaningful and think of all the good times you had together. As tempting as it may be to focus only on the practical aspects of a future death, take the time to talk to them, look back through old photo albums and simply be there.
  • Talk about your feelings. Whether you choose to open up to a friend, spouse or go to grief counselling, don’t bottle up your feelings, because this can take a toll on your mental health.
  • Close loose ends. Let pride aside and talk to your loved one about what they mean to you. If they are still in a good enough mental state, talk about things that you’ve been holding on to for years or even about what they wish you to do after their death.
  • Take care of yourself. As difficult it might be to think of anything else other than your loved one, don’t neglect your own wellbeing. Eat healthy food, try to stick to a regular sleeping schedule and ask your family and friends for help so that you have some time left for yourself too.