How to Recognize Signs of Anticipatory Grief
When we know a loved one is dying, we may feel the pain and sorrow of anticipatory grief. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of anticipatory grief and how to cope during this difficult process.
Confronted with the reality of a loved one’s declining health, it is normal to feel shocked and devastated. A diagnosis of terminal illness may set off a range of complex emotional reactions in both the individual and his or her family, including fear, depression and loneliness. Learning how to identify and cope with these symptoms can help us make the most of the time we have left with our loved ones.
Defining Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief is the name given to the tumultuous set of feelings and reactions that occur in some people who are expecting death in a loved one. These emotions can be just as intense as the conventional sort of grief felt after a death.
The most important thing to remember is that anticipatory grief is a normal process, even if it is not discussed as often as regular grief. Moreover, anticipatory grief is not an inevitable response to a loved one’s death, nor is it a guarantee that you will feel more or less grief afterward. However, it does differ in certain subjective respects from normal grief.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Normal or common grief begins soon after a loss and symptoms go away over time.” The emotional responses come in the wake of the actual loss, and a person may feel shock, anxiety, anger, depression and other debilitating symptoms that can affect day-to-day living for a period of time. With anticipatory grief, the feelings of pain and loss stem from imagining what life will be like without our loved one. There may be a considerable amount of fear associated with that loss: fear of being alone, fear of losing our independence or our social life. These fears are not limited to family members and caregivers; even the dying person may feel a sense of fear and isolation that is a form of preparatory grief. The turmoil of anticipatory grief has a positive side, though; it can help family members prepare for what will occur after death, presenting us with the opportunity to spend time with our loved ones, convey our love and even forgiveness, and figure out how to let go.
Anticipatory Grief Signs and Symptoms
While we may feel anticipatory grief while our loved one is still alive and well, it bears many of the same symptoms as conventional grief. Grief is often defined as progressing through stages, such as anger, sadness, denial, anxiety, depression and acceptance. However, there is no single, monolithic experience of grief. You might experience many recognizable symptoms, or just a few:
- Anxiety and depression
- Desire to talk
- Emotional numbness
- Poor concentration/forgetfulness
Anticipatory grief also has some characteristic signs and symptoms that are distinct from normal grief. These signs include an increasing concern for the person dying, imagining or visualizing what the person’s death will be like, and getting ready for what life will be like after a loved one is gone. You may feel the need to try to attend to unfinished business with the dying person. There is a high risk of depression with this type of grief as well.
Tips and Resources on Coping with Anticipatory Grief
While anticipatory grief is normal, there may come a time that it interferes with your day-to-day well-being. Don’t be afraid, though, to let yourself feel the pain of grief. Acknowledge your feelings of fear and loss, and remind yourself that they are normal in this situation. It does not mean you are giving up or that you love the dying person any less. If you are having trouble coping with your feelings, there are a wide range of strategies and resources available to help you get through anticipatory grief:
- Express your pain. Find an outlet for your feelings, whether it’s a trusted friend or family member, a spiritual adviser, an in-person or online support group, or some other way of expressing yourself, like journaling, letter writing, or artwork. HelpGuide.org offers several articles and online forums for those battling grief.
- Take care of your physical and emotional health. Combat the stress and anxiety of anticipatory grief by staying physically healthy. Besides getting enough sleep, nutritious food and exercise, attend to your spiritual needs as well, through prayer, meditation, yoga, long walks or whatever works for you.
- Spend time together now. One of the opportunities that anticipatory grief offers us is the chance to purposefully make the most of the time we have with our loved ones. The important thing is to make that time meaningful, not only attending to practical matters like advance directives, but spending time together in ways that are significant to you, whether that’s going through photos or simply being there.
- Consult books designed for caregivers. Books written by and for those in similar situations can be a great comfort, and offer plenty of coping strategies for making it through day to day, particularly for those whose loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s or another long-term illness.
- Practice love, forgiveness, and letting go. “Although painful in so many ways, a terminal illness offers you time to say ‘I love you,’ to share your appreciation, and to make amends when necessary. When death occurs unexpectedly, people often regret not having had a chance to do these things,” advises HelpGuide.org. Also, sometimes the dying person hangs on because of a feeling that others aren’t ready to let them go. Giving them permission to die, knowing that you will carry on, can impart a sense of profound relief.
If you are having difficulty coping despite your efforts, don’t hesitate to contact a grief counselor or other mental health professional for support. Anticipatory grief can be painful, but nobody has to suffer it alone.
Have you experienced anticipatory grief in the wake of a loved one’s illness? Which coping strategies have you found to be the most helpful? Share with us in the comments below.
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