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Anticipatory Grief: Learning the Signs and How to Cope

7 minute readLast updated December 20, 2023
fact checkedon December 13, 2023
Written by Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor
Reviewed by Jordan McCoy, LIMPHJordan McCoy is a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner who is passionate about connecting with caregivers of seniors.
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Anticipatory grief is the name given to the tumultuous set of feelings and reactions when someone is expecting the loss of a loved one. These emotions can be just as intense as the grief felt after a death. The most important thing to remember is that anticipatory grief is a normal process, even if it’s not discussed as often as regular, or conventional, grief. Learn the stages of anticipatory grief and how to cope.

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Who experiences anticipatory grief?

Anyone can experience anticipatory grief, and the experience is not limited to an impending death. Common reasons that people experience anticipatory grief include the following:[01]

  • You or a loved one is in hospice or palliative care. Regardless of whether or not the move to hospice or palliative care was sudden or planned, it’s normal to grieve a loved one even before they’ve passed.
  • You or a loved one has received a difficult or life-changing diagnosis, such as a terminal illness or Alzheimer’s. Even if you or your loved one has many years ahead, it’s normal to grieve a gradual loss of independence.
  • You or a loved one is about to go through an amputation. Grieving the loss of a limb before the procedure is a normal way to process this life-changing event.
  • You or a loved one is about to move, either to a new city or a new state. This is especially true for seniors moving out of their home for the first time to a senior living facility.[01]

What are the stages of anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief is a process, research shows. The stages of anticipatory grief are:

  1. Experiencing shock about the upcoming loss. This stage typically doesn’t last very long, but everyone goes through it. When experiencing shock, you may feel numb or detached from the situation.
  2. Denying the reality of the loss. The pain of the upcoming loss may be so acute that you respond by denying the loss altogether. While this is a defense mechanism, denial can prevent you from seeking the closure you need.
  3. Eventual acceptance. At this stage, you accept that you will experience the upcoming loss. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll feel better. You’ll still feel intense grief and sadness, but these feelings will guide you towards a healthy closure.[01]

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Why do people experiences anticipatory grief?

The feelings of loss and pain that come with anticipatory grief stem from imagining what life will be like after a significant life change, such as a move to senior living, a serious diagnosis, or a death of a loved one.

There may be a considerable amount of depression and fear associated with that loss. You may fear being alone, losing your social life, or changing your routine. Family members and friends are not alone in experiencing these emotions. The person experiencing the change may even feel a sense of fear and isolation that is a form of preparatory grief.

The intense emotions caused by anticipatory grief can range from shock, agony, and disbelief, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. This grief is experienced emotionally and physically throughout the dying process.[02]

The turmoil of anticipatory grief, however, does have some benefits. It can give you the opportunity to spend more time with your loved one, allowing you to find more meaningful ways to say goodbye. It can also help you prepare for a positive future.

How do you recognize the signs and symptoms of anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief bears many of the same symptoms as conventional grief, which is the emotional response to loss of any kind. Although grief generally progresses in stages, every person may experience it differently.

As you grieve, you may experience the following:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Desire to talk
  • Emotional numbness
  • Fatigue
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Poor concentration or forgetfulness
  • Sadness

There are some clear differences between anticipatory grief and conventional grief, though. These unique signs and symptoms of anticipatory grief include the following:

  • Increasing concern for the person dying
  • Imagining or visualizing what the person’s death will be like
  • Preparing for what life will be like after a loved one is gone
  • Attending to unfinished business with the dying person

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Six ways to cope with anticipatory grief

While anticipatory grief is normal, it might interfere with your overall well-being. Don’t be afraid to let yourself feel the pain of grief. Suppressing or ignoring these feelings isn’t a solution. Acknowledge your feelings of fear and loss, and remind yourself that they’re normal in this situation.

If you’re having trouble understanding or coping with your feelings, here are six ways to help manage anticipatory grief.

1. Get help from a support group

Building a support group or finding an existing caregiver support group can have many benefits, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology Support. Find support groups through your loved one’s health care provider, a hospital social worker, or online community groups. Meeting with people going through the same experience offers a chance to share common concerns and exchange ideas on how to manage situations that caregivers have in common. These groups enable those grieving to open up about their experiences, which can reduce stress and feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Here are three types of support groups that can help:

  • Peer-led group (run by a member)
  • Professional-led group (run by a counselor or psychologist)
  • Informational support group (run by a professional facilitator)[03]

2. Read or listen to stories of how others coped

Literature is a wonderful way to learn more about how others have overcome similar emotional challenges. Books by authors such as David Kessler — a grief expert, lecturer, and writer at Grief.com — can provide insight into additional coping mechanisms.

The University of Michigan’s Grief Resources and Support guide provides examples of books, podcasts, and online national community grief resources.

3. Express your feelings

Find an outlet for your feelings, whether it’s through talking to a trusted family member, friend, counselor, or spiritual advisor — or even through a personal hobby. Some positive ways to channel your feelings include the following:

  • Artwork
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Prayer

4. Practice forgiveness and love

It can be extremely difficult to navigate your emotions or find the right words to say.

However, a significant life change, such as a move to senior living or a terminal illness is an opportunity to say “I love you,” or “I forgive you.” It’s a time to share your appreciation, or to make amends when necessary.

Sometimes, in the case of a terminal illness, a dying person hangs on because of a feeling that others aren’t ready to let them go. Giving them permission to die, which means letting them know that you will carry on, can bring a profound sense of relief to both of you.

5. Spend quality time together

One of the opportunities anticipatory grief offers is the chance to truly make the most of the time you have left with your family member.

Make that time meaningful — not only by attending to practical matters like advance directives, but also by spending time together in ways that are significant to both of you.

Worthwhile or memorable activities might include:

6. Take care of your emotional and physical health

You can minimize the anxiety and stress of anticipatory grief by staying physically and mentally healthy. Do whatever you feel works best for you, but here are some helpful practices:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat nutritious foods and a balanced diet
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Use yoga or meditation
  • Go to church, pray, or read a spiritual book
  • Spend time with friends or family


  1. American Cancer Society. (2021). Grief, Bereavement and Coping with Loss.

  2. Periyakoil, V., M.D., & Hallenbeck, J., M.D. (2002). Identifying and Managing Preparatory Grief and Depression at the End of Life. American Family Physician.

  3. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Finding Support Groups.

  4. Toyama, H., & Honda, A. (2016). Using Narrative Approach for Anticipatory Grief Among Family Caregivers at Home. Global Qualitative Nursing Research.

Meet the Author
Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor

Merritt Whitley writes and edits content for A Place for Mom, specializing in senior health, memory care, and lifestyle articles. With eight years of experience writing for senior audiences, Merritt has managed multiple print publications, social media channels, and blogs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

Reviewed by

Jordan McCoy, LIMPH

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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