Here’s the thing about grief - even though we expect it to occur after the death of a loved one, for many of us it begins long before the death. This is known as anticipatory grief.
Grieving a loved one before they pass away is a very confusing and difficult kind of grief to experience. Anticipatory grief is intense sorrow felt in the weeks, months or even years before an impending loss. Bereavement begins well before the loss because of the anticipation - you know it’s coming, so you start grieving before it even happens.
Anticipatory grief is common in friends and family of people who have a terminal illness, or are experiencing a loss of self due to dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Understanding anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief is something many of us will have experienced in our lives, however we might not have realised there was a name to the feeling.
Anticipatory grief mimics conventional grief in many ways - feelings of anxiety, anger, denial, dread, sadness, isolation and guilt. The key difference is feeling all of this before a loved one has passed away, where you have been made aware of the looming death.
The feelings of anticipation can be mentally and physically exhausting. You might be in a constant state of alertness, jumping at every phone call wondering if this is going to be the call that delivers the bad news? Living your life on pause while trying to keep your loved one entertained, comfortable and cared for. Rushing to make memories while you still have the time, all while anticipating the inevitable and grieving the time together you’ll be missing out on, like the milestones they’ll never witness.
The problem with being exhausted by the anticipation is that it’s hard to be fully present with your sick loved one. Meaning it might be hard to be present and attentive in the time you have left together. It’s a vicious cycle and extremely difficult to break out of.
Grief before your own death.
Some people with terminal illness have reported feelings of anticipatory grief over their own imminent death. The grief is not only focused on the people, hobbies and experiences they are leaving behind, but also being empathetic of their loved one’s grief due to their death.
Teed Alex shares her life with a terminal diagnosis on TikTok, including her own grief about her coming death.
Dementia and anticipatory grief.
Losing a loved one to dementia or Alzheimer’s can be particularly difficult, given they are still alive but no longer themself.
As their symptoms become quite severe, it is common and normal to grieve the person they used to be, as they become a different version of themselves and lose their independence, cognition and overall identity. The grief can also come in waves as your loved one’s condition continues to regress.
Managing anticipatory grief.
- Know that anticipatory grief is normal and what you’re feeling is more common than you might think.
- Don’t feel the need to “make memories”. It’s okay to simply spend time with your loved one and keep them company.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself during this time. Stick with your routines, habits and self care practices as much as possible. How can you care for someone when you’re not caring for yourself?
- Talk to someone. Is there anyone else in your life who might also be experiencing similar feelings that you can talk to? Also consider engaging with a professional to help you work through your grief.
- Grief is incredibly complex and individual to you. Don’t be discouraged if the way you show grief is different to somebody else.
Feelings of relief.
Once your loved one has passed away, the resulting death can bring up feelings of relief - maybe it’s relief that the anticipation is over or that your loved one is no longer suffering, which then results in guilt for feeling such a way. The two emotions are conflicting and can feel incredibly confusing.
Know that this relief doesn’t mean you loved them any less, and is a completely normal reaction to a prolonged period of struggle and suffering. Be kind to yourself; relief and guilt are natural reactions and responses to anticipatory grief.
Does anticipatory grief make the grief after loss easier?
Short answer: unfortunately not.
Whilst some studies do suggest that when managed appropriately, anticipatory grief can help lessen the effects of grief after the loss, but this isn’t the case for everyone.
There isn’t a set time period for grief. Despite preparing ahead and knowing well in advance, nothing can really prepare you for the death itself, and you might be surprised by how much the loss affects you.
If you need immediate support or are experiencing a crisis, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Their crisis support is available 24/7.