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Grieving Before Death: Breaking Down Anticipatory Grief

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Grieving the impending loss of a loved one – also referred to as anticipatory grief – is something a surprising number of us will have to deal with during our lifetimes. While the five stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are well known, this stage is part of Erich Lindemann’s school of thought. Lindeman coined the phrase anticipatory grief or mourning in 1944, and it acknowledges we can grieve before a loss occurs.

The major issue surrounding anticipatory grief is that it tends to be considered selfish. The person suffering deems themselves to be the better off than the person dying. This leads them to feel a sense of guilt and makes them less likely to voice their emotions.

Therefore, it’s important to destigmatise the process. By examining it in detail, we can gain a greater sense of insight into the condition, it’s psychological effects, and the path it follows.

Anticipatory grief

A good starting point is to look a little closer at the definition of anticipatory grief.

As opposed to grief occurring after the death of a loved one (referred to as conventional grief), anticipatory grief sets in during the time leading up to the anticipated passing away.

It’s a multifaceted process and doesn’t just have a focal point on a person’s passing. Processes that form part of the larger approach may include:

  • A sudden change in roles fulfilled in the family
  • Having to deal with the loss of dreams 
  • Dealing with the imminent loss of a life-companion, 
  • Fears related to possible financial challenges brought about by major change 
  • Anger at the inability to help or save a loved one
  • Helplessness in the face of illness or injury

Entering a strange new world

It’s important to understand that grief isn’t a cookie-cutter emotion. Aside from the fact that no two people experience it in the same way, anticipatory grief can be completely different from grief experienced after death

In fact, the journey leading up to a loved one’s passing can be a great deal more intense than the post-mortem path to recovery and healing. Those who go through the process of anticipatory grief are already trying to deal with the absence of a loved one – even with that loved one still by their side. 

To the human mind and emotions, this tends to cause an unbalance of sorts. It causes a struggle between holding on to hope (however slim) and finally making the decision to let go. 

It must also be mentioned that not everyone experiences anticipatory grief. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. 

Some people report having experienced a definite realisation of a need to let go, but fear that this may constitute giving up hope. By default, they feel this displays a lack of loyalty, and instead embrace hope to such an extent they escape the process in its totality. 

Delayed pain isn’t diminished

For those who don’t suffer from anticipatory grief, the pain of losing a loved one isn’t diminished.

We can’t look at grieving before a loss and after as two halves of a whole. Each will have its own burdens and timelines, and one is not lessened if the other is in place or excluded. 

Even those anticipating the death of a spouse, child, or friend for a long time aren’t ever fully prepared for the emotions and challenges when the inevitable comes to pass.  

Anticipatory grief is hardly an opportunity to get a head start, crude as that may sound. But what it does offer is an opportunity for pre-loss closure. This can help eliminate the could-of-should-of-would-of regrets that so many people face when a loved one dies suddenly.   

What about the person dying?

The person anticipating his or her own death will often experience many of the same emotions, fears, and realisations felt by those left behind. To the dying, anticipatory grief provides a way to find meaning in life and death. 

Many people who are dying describe the process as an opportunity to gain closure and to achieve a rapid end-of-life growth process of sorts. Not only does this time allow them to get their affairs in order, write a will and talk about practical matters such as funeral expenses, and it also provides space to heal emotionally. People generally express immense gratitude for being granted the privilege to reconcile with loved ones, finalise plans, or say goodbye. 

What to expect 

Since being forewarned can mean being forearmed, many people find it helpful to know what to expect of anticipatory grieving. Knowing the symptoms can help take the unfamiliarity factor out of the equation. 

Even though we all grieve differently and experience anticipatory grief in differing ways, being aware of some of the more common symptoms helps us realise that we’re not alone. Many people have been there before us, and more are bound to make the journey after.

Some of the more common symptoms can include:

  • A constant sense of sadness and tearfulness
  • Feelings of intense anxiety and fear
  • A crippling sense of loneliness
  • A sense of unfounded guilt
  • Concern for the person who is dying 
  • A rehearsal of the death in the mind of the anticipatory griever

How to cope

Coping with anticipatory grief is never easy, and even the most resilient people can struggle. Caregivers who regularly face this emotion both themselves and with patient’s families advise that:

  • You prepare in every way – both practically and emotionally – for the passing.
  • You educate yourself about what the final stages of life could look like, depending on the illness or condition suffered. This can help you to feel a sense of control.
  • Ask for help. Whether with caring duties, day to day tasks, or something as small as cooking a meal.
  • Speak up. Talk to others who have experienced the same process, join a support group, or seek professional help.
  • Create lasting moments everyone will remember. The last days with a loved one can be filled with emotional turmoil. Where possible, try to create good memories, both for their sake and yours.

While there’s no straight line to recovering from loss, you can move forward from every stage of grief. It will hurt, and you may never stop missing the person you’ve lost, but it will get better. Drawing on inner strength, sharing your experience, and relying on family and friends’ support are all things you can hold on to until the pain lessens.


Image credit: Freepik

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg. He interviews people within psychology, mental health, and well-being on his YouTube channel, The DRH Show.


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