Anticipatory grief is not a commonly heard term. But it’s what we experience when we’re dealing with a pending loss—a loss that hasn’t happened yet, but one we know is coming.
Anticipatory grief often occurs when a loved one is seriously ill with a terminal illness or in hospice. It can also coincide with knowing that teenagers will be leaving the nest soon, or that your marriage is in rough territory and survival is uncertain.
When you’re dealing with anticipatory grief, you may feel like you’re living in a strange, in-between place.
For example, if you have a loved one nearing life’s end, you might feel caught in a mix of emotions. You’re filled with sadness, knowing that your time together is limited. Your heart aches desperately. You know you need to prepare yourself for their passing, but having them still with you may make you hopeful in some small ways.
Or, perhaps you know how much pain they are in. You hate to see them suffering; their pain adds to your own grief. You don’t want to lose them, but you don’t want them to go through more discomfort and distress. But even thinking such thoughts can make you feel guilty.
Stages of Anticipatory Grief
In a situation like this, you will undoubtedly experience many of the classic stages of grief. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the main categories. Your emotions can run the gamut between all of them. Some days you will feel fine, only to be sidetracked by anticipatory grief the next day.
Anticipatory grief exists in a place where there isn’t any finality yet. You know a significant change is coming. You’re very sad about it. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
The Role of Anticipatory Grief
The confusing space of anticipatory grief can be a helpful bridge between life as it is and life as it will be. As hard as it is, it offers stepping stones along the way to a new phase of life. Being able to go through anticipatory grief allows you to prepare yourself. If your anticipatory grief is for an ill loved one, you have time to say goodbye. If it’s about a child leaving home, you can do all you can to enjoy the remaining months together, creating memories.
Once a loss has actually occurred after you’ve been anticipating it, you are free to experience grief in all of its fullness. The blurry place of limbo is gone and is replaced by some sense of finality. It can be hard to admit it, but sometimes people find a sense of relief once their ill loved one has passed. Likewise, a sense of relief can accompany even the finalization of an unwanted divorce.
The anticipatory grief you experienced was helping you prepare for this moment. You may be even more overwhelmed by the hurricane of grief. Or you may have already done most of your grieving and are better equipped to move forward with your changed life.
Being able to go through this final grief is a necessity. With time, it will bring the closure you need. It can help you find a deeper meaning to your time with your loved one, even as you mourn the loss.
All grief, whether anticipatory or not, is challenging. Reaching out for professional help during the grief season can be very helpful. You will need to process a roller coaster of emotions that can sometimes threaten to pull you under.
Working with a therapist offers a way to work through these feelings and help you find firm footing. If you’re dealing with anticipatory grief or regular grief and need help, I encourage you to contact my office at https://www.new-perspective-counseling.com/contact/