Anticipatory Grief Symptoms and Coping Strategies

Published April 16, 2020
Daughter visiting her senior mother in hospital

Anyone can experience anticipatory grief if they are in the process of dying or their loved one is close to passing away. Better understanding anticipatory grief can help you process this stressful experience in a healthy way.

What Anticipatory Grief Means

Anticipatory grief accounts for the feelings associated with losing a loved one who you know will pass soon, or coming to terms with your own impending death. This type of grief may look different from grief experienced after a person passes away, but in reality there is no way to know exactly how you will respond to this type of grief without going through it firsthand. Knowing what you may experience can help you if this type of grief does come up for you.

Who Can Experience Anticipatory Grief?

Anyone who has an understanding of death and loss can experience anticipatory grief. This means that even young children who understand the concept of death can experience anticipatory grief. Adults who have a loved one in the process of dying can experience this type of grief when they first learn about their loved one's condition, or if the condition suddenly worsens. Anticipatory grief can also be experienced by those who are in the process of dying and are mourning and processing the impending loss of their own life.

When Can Anticipatory Grief Occur?

Anticipatory grief can be sparked if you are newly informed of a medical condition or illness that can impact your how much time you have left, or if a loved one is in the process of dying. Examples of situations that can bring up this type of grief include:

  • If you learn that you have a terminal illness
  • If your doctor mentions how long he/she believes you have left to live
  • If you become very ill and are informed by a medical professional that your chance of survival is low
  • If medical treatment you are undergoing isn't working and your chance of survival drops
  • If your loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • If your loved one is moved into hospice care
  • If your loved one's health begins drastically declining and you are informed that their passing is near
holding elder hand woman in hospice care

Signs of Anticipatory Grief

While anticipatory grief and grief after a passing may have some similar signs, the difference lies in the notion that the death is impending. This can create unique thoughts and feelings that are typically different from the thoughts of someone who has already lost a loved one. This type of grief can be incredibly stressful and to some may seem like a tortuous experience as waiting for the loss is a different type of pain versus the pain of a loss that has already occurred. Some signs include:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating
  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Preoccupation with the passing of a loved one or yourself

Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief can come in stages and waves that may include initial shock, denial, and later on acceptance that death is near. To cope with anticipatory grief:

  • Allow your mind and body to process the emotions that come up and try not to dampen them or ignore them.
  • Know when to take time for yourself and do something that brings you moments of peace.
  • If you are acting as a caregiver, be mindful of your role, how that impacts your emotional processing, and allow yourself to shift out of that role to process your feelings and grieve.
  • Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. This can mean speaking to a professional counselor, joining a support group, or relying on trusted friends and family members to support you.
  • Read relevant literature that can help you better understand this process from a neurological perspective or from a personal perspective.
  • Journal or create art that helps you express and release your emotions.
  • Engage in breathing and mindfulness exercises to help ground yourself.
  • If you have children, speak with them in an age appropriate way about what is happening and be there to support them during this time.

Anticipatory grief can bring up thoughts of harming yourself or others. If you experience this, reach out for help right away to ensure that you can keep yourself safe during this incredibly stressful time.

Taking Care of Yourself

Anticipatory grief can feel incredibly painful to go through and may cause a great deal of stress that you may end up sitting with for a prolonged period of time. Understanding this unique type of grief and practicing healthy self-care can assist you in processing this complex experience.

Anticipatory Grief Symptoms and Coping Strategies