Therapy Blog

Anticipatory Grief – Why Do We fear Losing Someone Before it Happens?

Posted on Wednesday, June 19th, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Most of us perceive grief as an emotional state which inevitably follows a tangible loss, such as a death, the end of a relationship or a job loss. But, for many people, the grieving process begins before the loss itself, and this can manifest itself in challenging, unexpected and, often, unacknowledged ways.

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Understanding anticipatory grief

Imagine standing on the edge of a major life change, feeling a swirl of emotions long before the shift even happens. This is the essence of anticipatory grief, a powerful experience that can take hold when we face an impending loss or major transition. Whether it is triggered by a serious diagnosis or the subtle signals of upcoming change, anticipatory grief can deeply affect us.

But do not be mistaken—this kind of grief is not confined to facing death. Any significant change can spark these feelings, even those we initially perceive as positive. Take, for instance, the thrill of accepting a new job. At first, you might be riding high on excitement. Yet, as the start date looms, you may find yourself unexpectedly mourning the comfort of your old routine, the camaraderie with colleagues, and the familiar desk that’s been your home base for years.

Who can be affected by anticipatory grief?

Who can be touched by this profound, often silent struggle? The truth is that anticipatory grief knows no boundaries and can affect anyone, regardless of age, background, or circumstance.

Often emerging in the shadow of impending loss, anticipatory grief doesn’t limit itself to the brink of death. Research shows that younger individuals are particularly susceptible, grappling with the abstract and often overwhelming concept of loss due to their limited encounters with death.

Caregivers and those with loved ones nearing the end of life are acutely aware of this form of grief. It weaves its way into their lives as they witness the slow departure of someone dear, whether due to illness or the natural progression of age.

But anticipatory grief is not just confined to the realm of death. It can surface in various scenarios: awaiting critical health diagnoses, confronting high-risk health situations, preparing for surgery, facing an imminent divorce or breakup, or dealing with pregnancy complications. Each situation carries the weight of potential loss, stirring the depths of our emotions long before the actual event.

Unveiling the roots of anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief is often regarded as a natural response to stress, especially among those who have navigated significant life changes. Despite the absence of certainty surrounding loss, it can help people to prepare emotionally.

Grief and sadness are healthy emotions and vital tools that help us process our situation. Anticipatory grief is often seen as the mind’s mechanism for preparing for change and addressing unresolved issues.

It’s always important not to try not to suppress or undermine our emotions when experiencing anticipatory grief, as this can hinder the healing journey. Resisting emotions, no matter how unpleasant, tends to intensify their impact. By sitting with our feelings and accepting them, we can allow them to flow through us rather than becoming ensnared in them. Unacknowledged and denied emotions often have more power over us than those we can learn to embrace.

A black and white shot of a lonely female standing in front of the windows looking at the buildings. Image by wirestock on freepik.

How does anticipatory grief feel?

Anticipatory grief can include:

  • • Feeling angry, irritable or like your emotions are out of your control
  • • Feeling sad, tearful, depressed, anxious or lonely
  • • Wanting to withdraw from or avoid social situations
  • • Feeling fixated on the person or situation you are pre-emptively grieving
  • • Concerns about finances and other logistical issues
  • • Difficulty sleeping, making decisions, remembering things or concentrating

Similar to traditional grief, anticipatory grief is experienced in stages. You may be familiar with the five grief stages, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross proposed. Those stages are:

  1. Anger
  2. Denial
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages were developed for people who are dying, but they also apply to those who are experiencing grief of any kind. The University of Rochester Medical Centre theorises that there are four similar stages for those experiencing anticipatory grief:

  1. Acceptance – acknowledging and coming to terms with the inevitability of death, often bringing feelings of sadness and depression.
  2. Concern – worries about the person or thing we are grieving, often expressed through regret or fear.
  3. Rehearsal – preparing, mentally or literally, for the grief. This might manifest as focusing on funeral arrangements, saying goodbyes, and preparing for the event where the anticipatory grief becomes traditional.
  4. Imagining the future — envisioning and preparing for life after the event. This may involve planning for future events and holidays after the change. People who are experiencing anticipatory grief due to their impending passing might consider how their loved ones’ lives will go on and consider what an afterlife may look like.

Does anticipatory grief offer solace?

Anticipatory grief may serve as a tool for some people, aiding them in facing their situation. It can help to confront fears and deal with any unresolved practical, emotional or spiritual matters. Yet, for some, anticipatory grief extends the grieving process.

Research findings regarding anticipatory grief’s potential to mitigate the pain of impending loss are varied. While some early studies indicate that anticipatory grief is helpful, others conclude it makes no tangible difference. However, assessing the value of human emotions through the lens of utility is unhelpful. Our emotions are not within our direct control. Rather than considering whether they benefit us, it may be more helpful to look at what they are trying to teach us, how we can navigate them, and how to engage in emotional healing.

How to work through anticipatory grief

Some things that can support us through anticipatory grief include:

  • Talking to someone. It’s important not to feel as though you are alone in your feelings. Anticipatory grief, whilst common, is not a universal experience and can lead to feeling isolated. By sharing your thoughts and feelings with a supportive individual, you can begin to initiate healing. Research shows that seeking and accepting support can aid people in adjusting to and even finding growth through anticipatory grief, creating a positive outcome from a loss.
  • Accepting your emotions. Trying to resist our feelings can lead to their suppression, which can potentially manifest in unintended and covert ways. By learning to sit with the feelings and allow them to flow through us, we may find it easier to release them.
  • Discovering an outlet. Verbal expressions of grief can be challenging for some, and engaging in activities and means of self-expression can be healing. This may be a journal, through art, a sport, gardening or some other healthy way of letting your feelings out.
  • Seeking counselling or therapy. An experienced therapist can help you work through your anticipatory grief, empowering you to regain a sense of emotional agency. An integrative therapist can employ different approaches to support you in reframing your perception of loss and encourage actions that promote a sense of community and joy.
  • Prioritising self-care. Going through experiences like grief can disrupt basic needs such as eating, sleeping and spending time outside or with other people. Whilst it shouldn’t add to existing stress, attending to your physical health as much as possible is vital. A healthy body equips us to deal with emotionally taxing experiences. Avoiding substances such as alcohol and drugs is vital; although they may offer temporary alleviation of painful emotions, they often compound issues in the long run.

young female traveler enjoying rural surroundings. Image by freepik

Anticipatory grief is a multifaceted emotional journey. While its nuances may not be universally understood, its impact is profound and deserves recognition. It underscores the interplay between our emotions, relationships, and resilience. By embracing supportive measures, open communication, and self-care, we can acknowledge and honour our feelings as a natural aspect of the human experience. This can empower us to embark on a path of healing and growth.

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