Over the course of many years, my Dad had a series of near-death health crises. Like a cat with nine lives, each time he miraculously survived. Though grateful for each fortunate outcome, a somber feeling of dreaded anticipation made a home in my heart. I began to experience roller coaster feelings with each crisis, from utter despair to sheer joy, accompanied by overwhelmingly inappropriate amounts of emotion every time I visited him thereafter. Unbeknownst to me, I was suffering from anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief is reacting to a loss that has not yet happened such as a child’s eventual departure to college or a parent’s inevitable death. It is essentially pre-mourning. It can manifest itself when a loved one is diagnosed with a life threatening disease, or during blissful “honeymoon” periods when everything seems to be going wonderfully well, of which you never want to end.
Common symptoms of anticipatory grief are moments of profound emotion, an underlying dread for the future, increased anxiety as “the end” approaches, and occasionally, guilt. The usual phases of grief can be present, as well – denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance, as established by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1973, On Death and Dying). Symptoms may, however, occur repeatedly or in a different order or last longer due to the nature of the circumstances.
Family members who are supporting a loved one with a terminal disease often experience anticipatory grief and are sometimes guilt ridden by feelings of “anticipating” or looking forward to the end as an unconscious means of being able to endure the challenges of being the caregiver. Likewise, those diagnosed with terminal diseases can experience anticipatory grief as they prepare mentally and spiritually for the predicted outcome.
Three useful tips for coping with anticipatory grief are:
1. Find the support you need
Anticipatory grief is largely unrecognized or misunderstood. Therefore, you will need to mindfully gather family and friends around who understand and have the patience to listen and offer support.
2. Expect grief to come in unexpected ways
After one of my Dad’s near-death situations, I developed an immediate impulse to sleep. This continued for weeks after the crisis and has never happened since. Be aware of how your body is reacting to the hodgepodge of emotions that come with grief and validate your feelings.
3. Be kind to yourself
It takes time and effort for grief to be resolved. Indulging in addictions, such as alcohol or drugs, will only postpone the progress. Seek professional help if your grief is debilitating. Gently force yourself to remain active socially and find opportunities to get outside and exercise.
Truth is, none of us can anticipate how we will respond to loss. Our grief may be as individual as the colors in a jumbo box of Crayons. The more we become familiar with anticipatory grief, the more prepared we are to cope with whatever loss that comes our way. As one unknown author wrote, “Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a loss of faith, it is the price of love.” And I might add… a price worth paying.