Anticipatory grief and how to manage it

Anticipatory grief is an experience many of us go through when we know a loved one is coming to the end. The suffering can come in many forms and we can go through a number of different emotions and experiences as we navigate through the most difficult of times. But there are ways to manage anticipatory grief and there is support out there.

What is anticipatory grief?

As defined by the End of Life Care Consensus Panel, "Anticipatory grief refers to a grief reaction that occurs in anticipation of an impending loss."

Anticipatory grief most often relates to people who are expecting the loss of a loved one, though it can also affect those who are dying themselves too, or affect those struggling with an impending divorce or the potential loss of a job.

Anticipatory grief differs from many other kinds of grief as it can create a conflict between mourning the loss of someone before they have died and hoping that a loved one may pull through and survive, which can spark a number of different opposing reactions and emotions.

Who experiences anticipatory grief?

Many different people can suffer from anticipatory grief. Though it is mostly associated with the impending loss of a loved one, it can relate to any type of potential upcoming loss.

Impending loss of a loved one

Daisies In A Field

Caregivers, family or friends of those dying are most often affected. The grief can be heightened by illness, uncertainty, monetary issues and the burden of caregiving.

Impending death of yourself

Pews And People At Funeral Service

Those who have a terminal illness, those who are in a warzone, or those who are of a certain age, can also feel grief for events they won't be around for or lost opportunities they will miss.

Other examples of anticipatory grief

Dining Room With Notepad And Pen

Someone who is about to lose a job, get divorced or a scheduled mastectomy may suffer from anticipatory grief, and can result in a fear of a big, uncertain change.

What emotions do you go through during anticipatory grief?

There are a number of different emotions an individual will go through, and even though some elements of the five stages of grief do apply - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - the model is seen to be a little outdated in the 21st century and not necessarily applicable to anticipatory grief.

Anxiety

Feelings of anxiety are synonymous with anticipation, therefore feeling anxiety when anticipating grief is very common and natural. Anxiety is often intertwined with worry and can cause strong feelings in the body.

Dread

It's common to have a strong sense of dread in this type of situation. Dread comes from thinking negatively about the future, which is perfectly reasonable when the future looks a little sad or bleak.

Guilt

Guilt is commonly felt during periods of all types of grief. Sometimes we feel like we could do more or we could've been nicer to the person who has died or is dying while they were fully on their feet.

Overwhelmed

It's hard not to feel overwhelmed in situations like these. It's easy for things to feel like they're getting on top of us when there's such sadness around us and so much to think about.

Hopelessness

When someone is dying or something is inevitably reaching the end, there is little we can do but watch on, and therefore it's common to feel a sense of hopelessness or helplessness.

Fear

Fear is very much intertwined with anxiety, but whereas anxiety comes from anticipation, fear is associated with a real impending threat, which is common in anticipatory grief.

How can you manage anticipatory grief?

With anticipatory grief you can go through a rollercoaster of emotions, sometimes feeling okay and upbeat about the future, and then the next feeling a strong sense of despair and loneliness.

Like with any emotion we feel, it's perfectly natural to feel this way and the worst thing we can do is pretend it doesn't exist or beat ourselves up for feeling a certain way.

Supporting yourself

care for loved one

Give yourself time and space to be alone and with your emotions. It's sometimes hard when the feelings are so strong and overwhelming, but the more time you sit with them the more you'll begin to feel who you really are.

Feeling sorrow and grief doesn't have to be a problem to be solved, it's an essential experience we all go through as human beings. If you need help to be with your emotions, reach out to friends and family when you're struggling. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, there are plenty of helplines that can be an aid.

Supporting your loved one

Field of flowering lavender in bloom

If your loved one is nearing the end, being as kind and as considerate to your loved one will not only make things easier for them, but it will makes things easier for you too. Try to get an understanding of what they're experiencing, what they're likely to experience and treatments that may help ease their pain.

In times of our own grief, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is be compassionate. Research conducted by Stony Brook University shows that expressing compassion and helping others has a tremendous effect on our own mental and physical well being and will of course aid your loved one's suffering too.

Getting support

If you're struggling or would just like someone to talk to, below are a few helplines that do great work and provide a shoulder to lean on for anyone who needs support:

Samaritans (Call: 116 123) - Free 24/7 support for anyone needing any kind of emotional support

Cruse (Call: 0808 808 1677) - Free helpline supporting those suffering with grief

Veterans UK (Call: 0808 191 4218) - Government-ran support organisation providing free support for veterans and their families

Age UK (Call: 0800 678 1602) - The UK's leading charity helping millions of older people with support, companionship and advice

The Silver Line (Call: 0800 470 8090) - Free 24/7 helpline for older people struggling with loneliness, sadness or lowness

Other helpful resources

Below are a few more resources that may help when it comes to anticipating a death.

How to prepare for a loved one's death

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Whether you're considering a hospice for your loved one or you're looking at arrange a funeral, it's worthwhile making arrangements as early as possible.

Preparing for a loved one's death

Preparing for your own death

Woman writing down her funeral wishes to give to family

It's never a nice feeling thinking about your own death, but most of us have plans regarding what will happen to our estate and what will happen at our funeral.

Preparing for your own death

Funeral plans for yourself or a loved one

Sue Cook Bench

Whether you're planning for yourself or someone else, funeral plans are worth considering as they allow you to cement the funeral arrangements at a less stressful time.

View our funeral plans

We offer the highest level of support, but don't take our word for it

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