February 3, 2022

Anticipatory Grief

By Melissa Del Carmen
Mental Health & Wellbeing

With the start of the new year, I always try to find some time to reflect on the experiences the past year has brought. Within the past year, I can say that a lot of things have happened that I was and wasn’t anticipating; my life majorly shifted after I graduated from my mental health counseling program and became a licensed counselor. I had the privilege of witnessing major life changes of my loved ones and with my significant other. I will forever be grateful for these experiences. I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that this past year has also brought about many difficult experiences as well; for instance, my family had also unexpectedly lost loved ones. For those who have experienced loss, you are not alone. Your emotions are so important throughout the grief process and no matter how long ago you experienced that, your feelings are still and will always be valid. Personally, writing at this time, those feelings that come with grief become familiar when anticipating grief as well.  

What is Anticipatory Grief? 

Anticipatory grief is the anticipation of death. It is similar to the normal process of mourning, but it happens before the actual death (Health Encyclopedia of University of Rochester Medical Center). 

Phases of Anticipatory Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of grief is commonly recognized and referred to as the Five Stages of Grief. The five stages include the following: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Although these stages are commonly identified in the grief process, the experience of each stage may differ for each person. Experiencing grief and the emotions that come alongside it may come in waves. Like waves in a body of water, they come at differing moments and may overlap each other at times. There are moments when a person can feel so angry at the situation at hand, and then momentarily accept what might be their new reality. That is okay and normal. Grief is not a straightforward experience and it can be a time that is full of confusion and bewilderment.

In a similar sense, there are different phases when experiencing anticipatory grief. 

Phase I: There is a realization that death is inevitable. Options for a cure or treatment are limited. Sadness and depression are common in this phase.

Phase II: There is a concern for the dying person. Significant others may reflect on previous interactions with the dying person and may experience regret or guilt. The dying person may also experience concern for themselves or fears about death.

Phase III: This phase may include “rehearsing” the death. There is a process of planning and carrying out actions that may happen after death (i.e., buying flowers; handling funeral arrangements). Goodbyes are common in this phase.

Phase IIII: This phase may include loved ones imagining what life will be like without the dying person. It is common that loved ones may visualize important life events, holidays, or special occasions without the dying person’s presence.

Relationship with the Loved One

When anticipating a loss, it can affect the way that one may interact with their loved one. This isn’t an easy experience, and each emotion that manifests is normal. One may feel stuck and unsure of how to interact with their loved one, but the relationship with the loved one is very important at this time. 

I come from a big family and ever since I could remember, we’ve seen each other at least once a week. For our family, quality time and being present is a way that we’ve learned to show the other that we love them. If your loved one appreciates quality time spent, a visit to just sit with them could mean so much. 

Empowering your loved one can be so significant during this time as well. Some individuals who anticipate death may choose to live like nothing matters anymore. As a support person, you can empower them to engage in tasks and activities that they enjoy, or spark a sense of purpose. Depending on the relationship, one can also show gratitude to their loved one. At times, those anticipating death may be experiencing regret in reflection of their life. As a support person, you can go about talking about their strengths and accomplishments that can help with this process.

Acknowledging Your Feelings

Throughout each phase, it is important to have some time to reflect on where you are at. Whether that means going for a walk, journaling, or going to your favorite coffee shop for some alone time, try to find moments to process how you are reacting and responding to this experience. 

In some cases, you may be the caretaker for your loved one. When wanting to be there for someone, it can be so tempting to be there for them so much that there is nothing else to give to care for yourself. Depending on expectations of the family and the expectations of your loved one, this can be difficult and may result in compromised quality of care. A cup can only fill another cup so much with what is in it. We can only give what we have. Take time to be curious about what you need during this time. 

Finding Support 

The anticipatory grief experience is a challenging one. In the process of acknowledging your feelings, reflect on trusted others around you that can support you. There are also many grief support groups that can serve as a healthy community to share similar experiences with. If you’re interested in a more one on one support system, please reach out to myself or one of the therapists here at Optimum Joy today!


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