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Anticipatory Grief: The Emotional Storm Before a Loss has Happened

February 01, 20246 min read

Normal grief is a complex and deeply personal journey, and one of its lesser-known aspects is anticipatory grief. This unique form of grieving usually occurs when we know something is going to come to an end, or there will be a significant change in circumstances, but it hasn't happened yet. 

Possibly you or a loved one has received a terminal diagnosis, and you are grappling with the impending loss and the many emotions that come with it. In conventional grief you are coping with the feelings that come after the actual death  of a loved one or change in circumstances.

Whether the dying person is you, a family member or other loved one, and whether you or they are receiving home care , palliative care or hospice care, feeling anxiety is natural, as you try to imagine how you will cope with the ending and beyond.

As a Grief Specialist, I understand the challenges that anticipatory grief can bring, and I'm here to guide you on how to prepare for your or a loved one's passing, or other significant change that is coming, while preserving your emotional and mental health.


Understanding Anticipatory Grief

understanding anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grieving or preparatory grief, is a natural response to the awareness that you or someone you care about is facing a life threatening illness, terminal illness or is in a critical condition. A client I recently worked with had a mother who had been diagnosed with dementia. She was confused and overwhelmed by the emotion of sadness because her mother was still alive. She thought grief was something that you felt when someone you loved had died. However, did you know that there are over 40 life events where something comes to an end or there has been a significant change in a familiar pattern of behaviour, that can produce feelings of loss and  grief. 

My client was aware of the impending death of her mum and as the primary family caregiver she was feeling very burdened. She had tried discussing her feelings with family members and a close friend. She had tried different ways to make sense of why she was feeling the way she was feeling but they hadn't helped. She reached out to me as a mental health professional and Grief Specialist.

By getting a better understanding of the different types of grief, she was able to make sense of what she was going through. By working with me she was able to learn the knowledge, tools and processes she needed to move forward and get her life back without spending years in pain and therapy. She recognised that accepting and coming to terms with an impending bereavement and a loved ones death that hasn't happened yet isn't easy, but she now felt better equipped on how to maximise the time that she did have with her mum so there would be no regrets later.

Anticipatory and other types of grief are not a sign of weakness, but rather a testament to the love and connection you share with the care recipient. This unique form of grief reaction can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Emotional Turmoil: Feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and anxiety can become overwhelming. It's important to acknowledge and express these emotions rather than suppressing them. You may become afraid of death and dying as your mortality becomes more real. We can't change what is happening but we can choose our response and whether we focus on the living or the dying aspect of life. Focus on living life without regrets by apologising, forgiving, expressing gratitude and showing love while you still have the chance.

  • Physical Symptoms: Anticipatory grief can manifest physically, leading to fatigue, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, and even headaches or muscle tension. Self-care is crucial during this time.

  • Loss of Control: You, as the caregiver, may feel helpless and unable to change the course of your loved one's illness. Accepting that you can't control the situation is an essential step in coping. If it is you that is dying, the loss of control over your illness and looming death will also have a similar impact.


Preparing for the Inevitable

preparing for the inevitable

While anticipatory grief  which is also sometimes referred to as anticipatory loss,is emotionally taxing, there are steps you can take to prepare for your or your  loved one's passing and make this difficult period more manageable:

  • Open Communication: Have open and honest conversations with your loved one about their wishes, fears, and thoughts. This can provide a sense of closure and ensure that yours and their final wishes are respected.

  • Express love and care: Worrying about the future can rob you of the opportunities you have by being in the present and communicating everything in your heart. It might help to list everything you want to say and do so there are no undelivered communications or unfinished things when the end comes.

  • Create a Support System: Lean on friends, family, a social worker or a support group. Sharing how you are feeling with others who understand can help reduce the burden of your anticipatory grief.

  • Seek Professional Help: Consider getting therapy from a  Grief Specialist. I can offer guidance and coping strategies tailored to your unique situation.

  • Document Memories: Create lasting memories by spending quality time with your loved one. Capture these moments through photos, videos, or journals to cherish later.

  • Self-Care: Take care of your physical and emotional well-being. This includes maintaining a healthy routine, eating well, exercising, and finding ways to relax and destress. For further information, click here to read more about self-care.

  • Plan for Afterward: Begin thinking about the practical aspects of what comes after you or your loved one's passing or other significant loss. Think ahead particularly about things such as funeral arrangements and estate matters. Having a plan in place can ease the transition. You don't have to do it alone, seek help when necessary.


Coping with Anticipatory Grief

Coping with Anticipatory Grief

Navigating anticipatory grief is an ongoing process that requires patience and self-compassion. Here are some additional coping strategies:

  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices can help ground you in the present moment and alleviate anxiety about the future.

  • Creative Expression: Engage in creative activities like art, writing, or music to channel your emotions constructively.

  • Celebrate Life: Instead of solely focusing on the impending loss, celebrate the life you are still sharing with your loved one. Share stories, reminisce, and express your love and gratitude.

  • Seek Comfort: Find comfort in faith or spirituality, if it aligns with your beliefs. Spiritual practices can provide comfort during difficult times.

  • Ask for Help: Don't hesitate to ask for assistance from friends or family or a mental health professional specialising in handling grief, when you need it. They want to support you through this challenging journey.

Anticipatory grief is a unique and challenging aspect of the grieving process, but it's also a testament to the deep love and connection we share with our loved ones. By acknowledging your emotions, seeking support, and preparing both emotionally and practically, you can navigate this difficult period with greater resilience and compassion.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and your journey is as unique as your relationship with your loved one.

Click here to watch one of my client’s testimonials.

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Grief Specialist

Ghulam Fernandes

Grief Specialist

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