I’ve been googling the term ‘pre-grief’ for months now, and nothing comes up. According to the internet, pre-grieving doesn’t seem to exist. At least, not in the way that I experience it.
When I type in this made-up term, I’m greeted by a plethora of articles on anticipatory grief – defined by MedicineNet as ‘the normal mourning that occurs when a patient or family is expecting a death,’ first identified as a real phenomenon by Erich Lindemann in 1944.
But what about the things we grieve before they happen that aren’t deaths?
For my own experience, I define pre-grieving as ‘the act of mourning in advance outcomes that are not guaranteed’. Very little scientific research has been conducted on this unique definition. So for the past year or so, I’ve played researcher with my friends and family, curiously surveying them as to whether they experience pre-grief like I do. Does anyone else imagine losing people or things and then deeply feel the devastation even before it’s a possibility? I can’t be the only one.
Just for fun, I decided to poll a slightly broader audience. While the data was far from scientific, out of nearly a hundred respondents, 87% told me they could relate; within minutes, dozens of deeply personal stories poured in about the situations which cause them to pre-grieve, to actively process their pain through various stages of grief before the situation even exists.
For some, it’s the fear of the dissolution of a relationship or the potential loss of a job. Some grieve in anticipation of a major move, or a life transition, like graduating college. Others mourn over the chance that an accident will rob them of the people they love. And in a global pandemic, many of us can relate to grieving over the loss of normality and what that might mean for the future.
David Kessler is an author and grief expert, who co-authored On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five States of Loss with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She first theorized the Five Stages of Grief, famously referred to as the Kübler-Ross Model.
In March of 2020, David Kessler was interviewed by Harvard Business Review and shared a new perspective on anticipatory grief amid the pandemic. ‘Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain,’ Kessler says. ‘Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there.’ He focuses on the sweeping grief the world has collectively experienced, the complete loss of normalcy and uncertainty over the future.
Some of the things we pre-grieve are planned and certain, like resignation or a cross-country move, and others, like an accident or illness, are far from it.
We know grief to be a healthy, normal way of processing shattering loss. And further, anticipatory grief in the case of preparing for death or dealing with a terminal illness is normal. As emotional creatures, grief is nearly impossible to avoid, and feeling the depths of pain speaks to our humanity. We love; we feel. We lose; we mourn.
And yet, the point at which our anticipatory grief turns from processing an impending loss to fixating on things that may never even happen is when pre-grieving can become unhealthy.
‘Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety,’ Kessler says.
To some extent, we all deal with various levels of anxiety, whether clinically-recognized or not. We fear what we cannot control. We are averse to discomfort and pain. We recoil at the threat of loss. However, living in constant fear over the what-if before it even comes is not particularly productive. Sometimes this is out of our control– but other times, we have the power to change some of these mental scripts.
Kessler continues, ‘Our goal is not to ignore those images [of worst-case scenarios] or to try to make them go away; your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.’
Unhealthily pre-grieving worst-case scenarios don’t have to be your pattern, because you can take back your anxiety over the uncertain future. This is where exercise can be helpful. Get a piece of paper and pen, and label the thoughts, fears, and realities. Ask yourself questions like this:
What am I pre-grieving?
Identify the fears. Give them a name. Put everything down on paper. There’s something about seeing things written out that makes them just a little more manageable.
Where is this worry stemming from?
Maybe witnessing others’ experiences and pain makes you feel like those things are going to happen to you. Find out what’s triggering your pre-grief so it doesn’t catch you off-guard next time.
What is in my control?
What is my responsibility? There are things within the realm of human control, and there are things outside of it. You can’t keep every bad thing from happening to those you love, but you can call them. You can tell them you love them. You can do your best to stay healthy and make wise choices to stay around for those that love you.
What do I need to work to let go of?
Pinpoint the unproductive anxiety you’re experiencing. Try to actively release the obsessive worry over what you cannot control, and focus on what you can.
If my greatest fear does happen, can I learn to be OK?
One of the most blissful facts of human existence is the reality that the future comes just one day at a time.
If a loss does come, you won’t have to handle it all at once; you’re just given one day at a time. Can you be OK today? That’s all you have to do. Just today. Pre-grief doesn’t have to run your life; anxiety doesn’t have to write your story.
You’re OK. Focus on today.
Amanda Beguerie is a freelance writer for hire and personal essay blogger at Scattered Journal Pages She has nearly six years of experience writing a variety of web and print content, including article writing, ghostwriting, copywriting, and podcast scriptwriting.
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