Grieving is hard and complicated after a loss, but some people may find themselves dealing with anticipatory grief, which is grief that comes before a loss. Anticipatory grief can happen in situations such as when a friend or family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness—when a loss is known to be coming, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Why anticipatory grief can be so complicated
Although anticipatory grief happens in situations where the impending loss is known and expected, it still prompts a complicated grieving process—one that can be every bit as hard as the actual loss itself. It’s the uncertainty of being in this in-between state, where there’s still hope that the loss might not happen or optimism about finding closure in a relationship that makes anticipatory grief so complicated.
“Even though you might expect it, it still feels unexpected, no matter how much we feel like we’ve had time to prepare for it,” said Alexandra Cromer, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks. “It’s almost like there are multiple deaths or multiple grieving periods.”
For example, if a person is caring for a parent with dementia, there’s the grieving period associated with the loss of their mental capabilities, which is then followed by the grieving period associated with the loss of their physical presence. “There is never uncomplicated grief,” Cromer said.
There are many emotions associated with anticipatory grief
“In some instances, anticipatory grief can serve a function of helping you feel prepared,” Cromer said. In the example of a parent who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, this may be a time for talking with them about their will and their end-of-life preferences. But it still comes with an enormously complicated set of emotions, many of which can be confusing and painful. “It’s sadness, but it’s also anxiety, frustration, denial, blame. This is something that can wreak a lot of havoc,” Cromer said.
It can be especially hard to acknowledge those emotions when the loss hasn’t happened yet. “A lot of people, when they’re experiencing anticipatory grief, they don’t give themselves permission to feel all of these emotions,” Cromer said. “They’ll say, well, my mom’s not dead yet, why am I upset? Or, okay, she has two years to live, why am I anxious all the time and can’t enjoy the time I spend with her?”
What to do about anticipatory grief
If you are experiencing anticipatory grief, which is making it hard to function in your daily life, then it’s important to seek professional help, preferably from someone who has experience with different types of grief. “If it feels like you are wearing ankle weights, that life just got extra hard, and is requiring so much more energy, that’s when it might be a good time to seek help,” Cromer said.
However, as Cromer notes, even if your grief isn’t impacting your daily functioning it can still be helpful to seek out help, as that can help it from getting worse. “Early intervention can help,” Cromer said. “The sooner we get ahead of something, the sooner we have that trusted professional, typically, the better the outcomes are.”