What Is Anticipatory Grief And How Do You Deal With It?

Unlike grief that occurs after the passing of a loved one, anticipatory grief is experienced while the loved one is still alive, but nearing death (via PopSugar). Also known as anticipatory loss or preparatory grief, Dr. Allison Werner-Lin, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Forbes, "It's the experience of knowing that a change is coming, and starting to experience bereavement in the face of that."

Experts explain via PopSugar that those experiencing anticipatory grief may have symptoms of anxiety, tearfulness, denial, guilt, social withdrawal, relief, or an increasing preoccupation with the dying individual. Physical side effects may include a loss of appetite, digestive discomfort, muscle aches, and joint pain, amongst others.

Often, anticipatory grief is experienced by caretakers of aging friends or family members, a terminally ill child, or a sick pet. According to ScienceDaily, a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the ​​University of Indianapolis found that anticipatory grief was reported as one of the top challenges faced by caretakers of Alzheimer's patients. Over 80% of survey responses from over 400 caregivers — predominantly family members — discussed the difficulty of ​​"letting go of the person we used to know," as one respondent put it.

In addition to the death of a loved one, life changes that may prompt feelings of anticipatory grief can include moving or changing jobs, or anything that involves changes in identity, relationships, and familiarity, reports Forbes.

Ways to cope with and support those experiencing anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief may be experienced anywhere from days to years before a prospective loss (via Forbes). Often coming in waves, anticipatory grief can cycle between four phases: acceptance of the impending loss, feelings of concern or regret, rehearsing or preparing for the death, and envisioning the future. 

Emotional support is key for those coping with anticipatory loss. Palliative care physician Dr. Ashwini Bapat elaborates, telling PopSugar, "Talking about this with a professional, such as a palliative care clinician, a therapist, or a counselor can help. It is critical to seek professional help particularly if the anticipatory grief starts to interfere with your daily responsibilities."

Therapeutic models such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or narrative therapy may be particularly helpful for processing and managing grief symptoms (via Forbes).

Bapat adds that support can also be sought from loved ones such as friends, relatives, or partners. Grief and trauma therapist Ani Mirasol states via PopSugar that cooking meals, offering childcare, helping with cleaning, and making yourself available to talk are all ways to support someone experiencing anticipatory grief, if they are open to the help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.