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What is anticipatory grief?

Emma Tomes |
June 27, 2022

When asked to describe grief, many of us would say it’s something that we experience after the death of a loved one.

In fact, grief can start a long time before the physical loss.

If a loved one is given a terminal diagnosis, or told they have dementia, for instance, we can often start to experience grief at the loss of that person as we know them straight away. Our emotional reaction to that diagnosis can often be just as intense as after a death.

This is called anticipatory grief and it’s something which is very close to my heart – my mum has secondary breast cancer and my mother-in-law is living with dementia.

While some of us are, sadly, very familiar with it, others may not be aware that it even exists as it is not often talked about or even acknowledged.

And it’s not always the impending death of a loved one that can cause anticipatory grief. Many huge life changes can also evoke the same feelings of loss and trauma.

A child heading off to school or moving away to university, for instance, can give rise to these feelings.

Awaiting an organ transplant, being made redundant, amputation or the looming loss of a pet are other examples.

Whatever situation you are in, there are tools available to help you cope now and to better deal with the further grief to come in the future.

First, we need to know the signs of anticipatory grief. These can include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Tearfulness
  • Irritability and anger
  • Withdrawal from social situations and depression

Sometimes, you may wish for it all to be over – while you may feel unable to admit this, it is perfectly normal. 

Anticipatory grief can look very much like conventional grief, but those experiencing it can often feel guilty at having these feelings and can feel unsupported. Those around them may feel that true grief only comes later.

In the workplace, anticipatory grief can throw up all sorts of challenges.

Traditional workplace procedure is set up to support employees after they have suffered a loss, but those suffering anticipatory grief may need just as much support and understanding as those experiencing conventional grief.

It is usual procedure to give people time off work following the death of a loved one, but not before, even though the grief may be just as intense. However, while it may help is some cases, it’s dangerous to assume that time off is always the answer – this may actually isolate someone further.

Grieving people need to be heard, validated and understood, and it is important that managers keep the lines of communication open and treat each situation individually. They should:

  • Keep talking
  • Avoid trying to fix things
  • Avoid thinking one solution fits all option – each person is different and has different needs
  • Avoid unhelpful statements like ‘it could be worse…’ 

For those experiencing anticipatory grief, self-care is paramount. They need to:

  • Allow themselves the time and space to grieve
  • Maybe write down thoughts and feelings
  • Look after themselves with the right diet and exercise
  • Ask for help if needed

The Grief Recovery Method© has some really helpful tools for people in this situation and I use it to help clients through this difficult period in their lives. I also offer workshops to help people better understand grief.

Learn more about how we can help. Ask us today!

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