What Is Anticipatory Grief?

Sad woman suffering from depression

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Anticipatory grief is grief that occurs before a loss. It is commonly experienced by the loved ones of an individual with a terminal diagnosis as well as the individual who is dying. However, it can also be experienced in any situation where a pending change may lead to loss, such as a move to a new city, a job change, or a child leaving home for college.

Anticipatory grief has a lot in common with conventional grief, the grief one experiences after a loss. Furthermore, anticipatory grief can start at any time prior to the loss.

For example, if a loved one has a life-threatening illness such as cancer, a family member or close relative may experience anticipatory grief at any point from the initial onset of symptoms to the time of the diagnosis to when they enter hospice care.

Anticipatory grief may be experienced even if the loved one ultimately recovers from the illness.

This article discusses why anticipatory grief happens and covers its signs and phases. It also outlines the differences between anticipatory grief and conventional grief and discusses whether anticipatory grief can help mitigate conventional grief. Finally, you'll learn ways to cope with anticipatory grief.

Why Does Anticipatory Grief Happen?

Anticipatory grief is one way people react to the knowledge that a life-changing loss will happen in the near future. Although not everyone will experience anticipatory grief, for those who do, it's a normal response to the sadness and uncertainty that impending loss brings to both the present and the future.

For people either anticipating their own deaths or that of their loved ones, anticipatory grief can help them settle any unfinished business and say goodbye.

In addition, those anticipating a loved one's death may use this period to prepare for the ways their life will change socially after their loved one has passed away. In some cases, people have even found that anticipatory grief has led them to experience an emotional separation from their dying loved one.

Anticipatory grief can also serve as an impetus for personal growth and finding closure for both the dying individual and their loved ones. This closure can help enable them to find meaning and purpose in the situation.

Signs of Anticipatory Grief

The emotions and behaviors people experience when anticipating a loss can vary and will be felt with different levels of intensity. Some of the things anticipatory grief can trigger include:

Phases of Anticipatory Grief

Much like conventional grief, there are a set of phases associated with anticipatory grief over one's own death or a dying loved one. While the phases are laid out in a sequence, they may be experienced in any order and may even overlap.

There may be days when parts of each stage come up and other days when none do.

Phase I: Death is Inevitable

The individual accepts that there is no hope for a cure for their own or their loved one's illness. This realization is often accompanied by depression and sadness.

Phase II: Concern for the Dying Individual

Loved ones may feel regret about past arguments or misunderstandings with the dying person. Meanwhile, the dying person may experience increased fear and concern about death, while also worrying about the emotions their loved ones are experiencing.

Phase III: Rehearsal of Death

Both the dying person and their loved ones may start to prepare for the physical death by discussing funeral arrangements, saying goodbyes, and carrying out other activities that address what will happen in the immediate aftermath of the death.

Phase IV: Imagining Life Without the Dying Individual

Loved ones may imagine what life will be like after the loss and mourn the life that could have been if the impending death didn't happen. They may think about what social situations will be like without their loved ones or how people will react when they're informed about the loss.

Meanwhile, the dying person may imagine what their loved ones' lives will be like once they're gone and consider where they might go after they die.

Differences Between Anticipatory Grief and Conventional Grief

There are many similarities between anticipatory grief and conventional grief, however, studies have demonstrated there are some key differences as well.

Unlike a sudden loss, a loss that's anticipated enables people to prepare for the changes that will accompany the loss so those witnessing death can get closure. However, research has also shown that anticipatory grief is accompanied by more intense anger, loss of emotional control, and atypical grief responses.

In fact, a study of Swedish widows found that 4 out of 10 thought the pre-loss period of anticipatory grief was more stressful than the post-loss period of conventional grief.

These responses may be due to the uncertainty and loss of control brought on by anticipatory grief.

In other words, when we anticipate a loss, we also imagine a future after the loss occurs, but we can't be sure of what that future will really be like.

As a result, we lose our sense of safety and security, leading to a range of stressful emotions that may not be felt after a loss has occurred.

Does Anticipatory Grief Mitigate Conventional Grief?

While it may intuitively seem as though anticipatory grief will lessen the impact of conventional grief, the research on the topic shows that this isn't always the case.

In some studies, anticipatory grief was shown to make the period of conventional grief easier. However, in other studies, people who experienced anticipatory grief fared worse in the first months after their loved one's death than those who hadn't experienced anticipatory grief.

Consequently, even though it's possible anticipating a loss may make the bereavement period afterward less painful, that may not happen.

Moreover, the period following a loss may be even more intense than the period before. How each individual experiences grief before and after the death of a loved one will vary.

A variety of factors play into how people deal with grief such as the age at which the loss happens for both the individual who dies and the person who is losing them, the length of time one has to anticipate the loss, and personal traits, and circumstances.

Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief can be more difficult to cope with than conventional grief because some people may wonder why you're grieving before the loss has occurred. While this can lead to feelings of guilt, it's important to remember that anticipatory grief is normal.

You can cope with anticipatory grief by using it to prepare for the impending loss. This will give you the opportunity to ensure you can spend time with your loved one, have meaningful conversations, and say goodbye. This can also help you start the process of letting go.

In addition, it's important to make sure you have someone to talk to who understands what you're going through. This could be another person experiencing anticipatory grief, a therapist or counselor who specializes in grief, or a support group for people going through the same thing you are.

Research has shown that seeking and accepting social support helps facilitate people's ability to proactively cope and grow during a period of anticipatory grief, enabling something positive to come from loss.

A Word From Verywell

If you're finding it difficult to cope with anticipatory grief, remind yourself that it is a normal response to an inevitable loss. A trained mental health professional can help provide you with emotional support and teach you healthy coping mechanisms that can help you during this difficult time.

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6 Sources
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