While there are several different types of grief, anticipatory grief is a lesser talked about form of grieving.  This type of grief often occurs while dealing with the impending death of a loved one, or possibly even their own death, but can also stem from divorce, leaving a job, or other anticipated life changes.

What makes anticipatory grief different from normal grief?

Many people expect to grieve after death.  When a loved one is terminally ill and the patient is going through the process of seeing them deteriorate mentally/physically, making sure their affairs are in order, and saying their goodbyes, it can affect their own mental health as well.  Changes in family dynamic can also cause this type of grief because their plans for the future are changing and they don’t have the stability that they thought they once had.  This can lead to less control of their emotions, more anger than when dealing with normal grief, and less natural forms of grief responses.

While these types of grief may be different, there are a lot of similarities such as:

  • Sadness or tearfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Denial

Everyone deals with grief in their own way, so the patient may only exhibit one or two of these symptoms, or possibly all of them!  All of these emotions are normal and healthy as long as they are able to move on from these feelings at their own pace. They may have questions or fears about their own mortality.  If they are going through a divorce or are a child of parents who are separating, they could have bouts of loneliness, anger, and excessive crying due to the changes that their life is now going through.  The tough thing about anticipatory grief is they know these changes are coming, they just do not know when, and how it will affect their life afterwards.

Coping with anticipatory grief

Grief is a universal human experience.  Like other forms of grief, understanding their feelings is the first step the patient can take to help heal their mental health.  There are several ways the patient can cope in a healthy manner, such as:

Creating memories with their loved ones before they pass

By doing this, the patient can take a step back from mourning their inevitable loss and enjoy the time they still have with their loved one.  They will have happy memories to look back on that may help ease the guilt and sadness that they may be feeling.  Even if their loved one cannot enjoy the activities they once were able to do, including them in the best way that they can is beneficial to both the patient and their loved one.

Seeking help from family and friends

The patient’s family and friends may be going through the same thing as they are.  Supporting one another is a healthy way to navigate the process of grieving.  Even if they aren’t experiencing the same thing, their friends and family can offer advice and support, and may have a better insight as to how the patient can cope.

Educating themselves for the inevitable

If the patients loved one is terminally ill, they can do their own research as to how the disease effects their body and how to make them as comfortable as possible.  They can also learn the stages of the disease and what to expect as time goes on and prepare themselves for what’s to come.

Joining a therapy group or individual therapy

Grief can be a very difficult thing to navigate on their own.  Joining a therapy group of individuals going through the same thing, or even seeking private therapy can help the patient work through their feelings.  Even if they are there just to listen to what other people are going through, it may shed some light on the emotions that they are feeling and be a positive resource to their healing process.  Cognitive behavioral therapy is also a tool the patient can use to manage painful emotions and change their destructive behavior habits into healthy ones.

Offering some of these options to someone going through anticipatory grief will help the patient understand their feelings and learn how to cope with their complex emotions.  Even though they know this life changing event is going to happen, it does not make it any easier on the patient.  Anticipatory grief is often a precursor to normal grief for when their loved one does pass, or their divorce is finalized etc.  By implementing these resources, it can help ease the process of normal grief and may provide better coping skills for the inevitable grief after their loss.  Remind the patient that it is okay to ask for help, and help them find the best route that works for them.

Anticipatory grief is a common situation that many preparing for the death of a loved one experience. By becoming a member of The American Academy of Bereavement you can learn about various ways to approach this complicated situation.