Female patient sitting on sofa and crying while psychotherapist consoling during appointment

Anticipatory Grief

When we think of grief, we usually think of it in the context of death. But anticipatory grief can happen long before a loved one dies. You may be grieving the loss of future events like holidays, birthdays and vacations that you won’t get to experience with your family member as they progress through life. It may also express itself as guilt or pain when you anticipate how your life will change after their death. Anticipatory grief is an empathetic response to a loss that may be experienced as sadness, anger and anxiety.

Grief Doesn’t Only Happen After We Experience a Loss.

We usually think of grief as something that happens after a loss but it often begins long before the loss arrives. We grieve when we experience the anticipation of losing someone we love, but also the anticipation of losing of our future with them – like the loss of future events, like holidays, birthdays and vacations that you won’t get to experience with your loved one as life continues.

Grief may express itself as guilt or pain when we imagine how our life will change after their death. Anticipatory grief is a normal response to an expected loss and it can carry many of the same symptoms as regular grief—such as the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, bargaining, sadness, anger and acceptance. Anticipatory grief can be triggered by:

  • Loss of health (e.g., chronic illness or disability)
  • Loss of a loved one (e.g., divorce, death)

The Anticipation of Loss May Cause Different Feelings.

You may feel guilt and pain, even just thinking about the loss that’s on its way. You may feel guilty about things you did or didn’t do. Or perhaps you have regrets about how your relationship with your loved one was handled in the past. You may also be experiencing anticipatory grief if you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious, numb or even have a sense of disbelief that the loss is on its way. In some cases, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), people who are experiencing anticipatory grief can’t specifically pinpoint why they’re feeling this way.

However, it’s important to note that there isn’t a specific timeline for when you’ll experience these feelings or the stages of grief: Some people experience one emotion at a time while others might feel all of them at once—or none at all! This can make it hard to know what stage of grief you’re in when dealing with this type of loss. If these thoughts are causing undue stress, try to remind yourself that these feelings are normal reactions to loss.

It May be Difficult to Talk About Your Feelings.

It may be difficult to talk about feelings associated with anticipatory grief. Some people feel that they aren’t allowed to grieve until the loss actually happens, while others feel guilty for having these anticipatory emotions at all.

Furthermore, you may experience a sense of isolation because it may be hard for other family members or friends to understand what you’re going through and provide support.

How to Implement Self-care When Dealing With Grief.

Things we can do to implement self-care while we are experiencing anticipatory grief are to:

  • Use good self-care practices like eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising.
  • Find ways to cope with feelings of anxiety or sadness.
  • Practice mindfulness – focus on the present moment, notice how you feel, and let go of any thoughts about the future or past.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Take time for yourself.
  • Get support from friends and family.
  • Think about the good times you had with your loved one.
  • Do something that makes you feel good.

Anticipatory Grief can be Healthy and Helpful.

Remember anticipatory grief is a normal and healthy reaction when a loved one has an illness or injury that will result in significant life changes, such as your loved one’s diminished capacity or death. It can help you prepare for the changes, make the most of your time with the person, and work towards acceptance.

However, anticipatory grief can become unhealthy if it gets too intense and starts negatively affecting your everyday life. If this happens to you, talk to a licensed professional about how you’re feeling as soon as possible so that you don’t get stuck in unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving.

Learn to Navigate Anticipatory Grief with Dr. Carolina Raeburn

Dr. Carolina Raeburn is a Florida Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a subspecialty in neuropsychology. If you’re struggling with grief or  loss, please schedule a telehealth appointment by clicking here. Or if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out through our contact page.

*All the information published in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Any information provided here is offered in generic form. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

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