by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC
When we first heard the words, “You are dying”, the world seemed to stop, sadness felt overwhelming and we wished the world would pause, just for a while. After the initial shock, both the mind and heart were trying to work collaboratively and coherently, attempting to come to grips with the devastating news. Over time, as we watched our special person’s health decline, we also watched their abilities diminish. With the bad news, with each decline, both they and we were grieving, often without even recognizing it.
Anticipatory grief, also known as anticipatory mourning, is a term used by various professionals to describe a response to loss before the loss. Anticipatory grief can be protective, allowing someone to move through difficult emotions and to prepare for the loss to come emotionally. Therese Rando, PhD defines anticipatory grief as:
“…the phenomenon encompassing the process of mourning, coping, interaction, planning, and psychosocial reorganization that are stimulated and begun in part in response to the awareness of the impending loss of a loved one and the recognition of associated losses in the past, present, and future,” (Rando, 1986a).
Preparing for the death of a person naturally evokes many thoughts and emotions, yet there are other losses a caregiver observes as the special person declines in health. Some of these losses can include loss of physical abilities, loss of dignity, loss of ability to do things that were meaningful, and loss of hopes and dreams. It can also refer to preparing one for a future loss, such as the death of a loved one, an upcoming job loss, moving, starting a new school, etc.
Experiencing anticipatory grief before the death or loss occurs does not mean an individual will not grieve again after the death. For some, it can diminish the grieving after a death, while for others, the grief is new and different once the loss is final. There are no steadfast rules. Each person will grieve in their own way because grief is as individual as each snowflake. If we didn’t love, we wouldn’t grieve.
Some ways to cope with anticipatory grief, which can also be helpful for coping with grief after death, include:
Let Yourself Grief – grief is natural and normal. Allow yourself to grieve, whether through expressing emotions or through activity.
Support Systems – stay connected with those who may be experiencing similar losses and reach out to them regularly. Especially at this time, surround yourself with what you need to both be a caregiver (if this is your role) and to grieve.
Taking Care of Yourself – if a caregiver, one of the first things we sacrifice is our own health.
As much as possible, take care of yourself by exercising, eating right, and getting sleep.
Create More Memories – while able, create more meaningful memories with your special person.
Anticipatory Grief Image. Instagram @grieving.room, Let’s Talk About Anticipatory Grief, Grieving While We Get Ready to Grieve. https://www.instagram.com/grieving.room/. Accessed 10/4/2023.
Becher, Emily and Krekelberg, Emily. Anticipatory grief. https://extension.umn.edu/stress-and-change/anticipatory-grief. University of Minnesota Extension. 2022. Accessed 10/4/2023.
Cowan Snyder, Diane., Managing Anticipatory Grief. https://www.hospicewr.org/Western-Reserve-CareLink/May-2015/Managing-Anticipatory-Grief. Hospice of the Western Reserve. May 2015. Accessed 9/23/2023.
Developed from Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., MDiv., copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2012. Coping with Grief before and after a Death. https://hospicefoundation.org/Grief-(1)/Caregiving. The Hospice Foundation of America. Accessed 9/23/2023.
Rando, Therese A., Ph.D., Clinical Dimensions of Anticipatory Mourning, Therese Rando, Editor, Research Press, IL, 2000.