How to Recognize the Signs of Anticipatory Grief
Last Updated: April 22, 2019
When we know a parent or senior loved one is approaching their end of life, we may feel the pain and sorrow of anticipatory grief.
Learn more about how to cope and recognize the signs of anticipatory grief during this difficult time.
Confronted with the reality of a senior loved one’s declining health, it is normal to feel devastated. Receiving a terminal illness diagnosis may set off a range of complex reactions in both a loved one and their family, including depression, fear and loneliness. Learning how to cope with and identify these symptoms can help us make the most of the time we have left with our loved ones.
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.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Common or normal 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 anxiety, anger, depression and other debilitating symptoms that can affect day-to-day living for a period of time.
With anticipatory grief, however, the feelings of loss and pain stem from imagining what life will be like without a loved one.
There may be a considerable amount of depression and 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, however. 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 or forgiveness, and figure out how to let go.
How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Anticipatory Grief
While we may feel anticipatory grief while our senior 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, but there is no monolithic experience of grief. You might experience many recognizable symptoms or just a few, like:
- Desire to talk
- Emotional numbness
- Poor concentration or forgetfulness
Anticipatory grief also has some characteristic signs and symptoms that are distinct from normal grief.
These signs include 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 as well.
Ways to Cope 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 resources available to help you get through anticipatory grief:
1. Consult books and support groups for caregivers.
Books and caregiver support groups can be a great comfort and offer plenty of coping strategies for making it through day to day.
2. Express your pain.
Find an outlet for your feelings, whether it’s a trusted family member or friend, a spiritual adviser, an in-person or online support group, or some other way of expressing yourself, like artwork, journaling or meditation.
3. Practice forgiveness and love.
“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 a 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.
4. 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.
5. Take care of your emotional and physical health.
Combat the anxiety and stress of anticipatory grief by staying physically healthy. Besides getting enough exercise, nutritious food and sleep, attend to your spiritual needs as well, through long walks, meditation, prayer or whatever works for you.
Anticipatory grief can be painful, but nobody has to suffer it alone. If you are having difficulty coping despite your efforts, don’t hesitate to contact a grief counselor or other mental health professional for support.
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.
We Can Help! Our local advisors can help your family make a confident decision about senior living.
Incoming search terms:
- my father is terminally ill and i feel so depressed