What Is Anticipatory Grief?

·4 min read
Photo credit: SimonSkafar - Getty Images
Photo credit: SimonSkafar - Getty Images


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There are many ways you can experience grief, including grieving someone or something before you’ve actually lost it. It's called anticipatory grief and it’s not as well-known by the general public as other forms of grief.

“This type of grief is common as people begin to feel sadness and loss over something they know or believe is going to happen,”says psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. One common example of anticipatory grief is grieving the loss of a loved one with a terminal illness while they’re still alive, he explains. Anticipatory grief is a “coping mechanism to prepare for a loss,” Mayer says.

Given that most people aren’t aware that anticipatory grief is even a thing, it’s understandable to have questions about this, including what anticipatory grief looks like and when to get help for it. Here’s what you need to know.

What are the stages of anticipatory grief?

It’s important to note that everyone grieves differently. And, with that, you may not necessarily go through the steps of anticipatory grief or may experience them differently from others, says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and cohost of the Mind in View podcast.

However, Mayer says, you may go through these stages with anticipatory grief:

  • Acknowledging the potential loss

  • Accepting the potential loss

  • Trying to problem-solve the potential loss (i.e. putting steps in place for what you will do when the loss actually happens)

  • Having closure and feeling like your plan of problem-solving is in place and will work for you

As a whole, “anticipatory grief often involves feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear as the person begins to realize the things that will change after loss occurs,” says Arianna Galligher, associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It is common for individuals to feel discomfort as they imagine their life changing.”

What are common thoughts during anticipatory grief?

Galligher says these are common thoughts you may experience when you’re going through anticipatory grief:

  • How will I be able to manage after the loss?

  • What will I do?

  • I’ll never be able to ____ again.

  • How can this be happening?

  • It isn’t fair.

  • This is going to be too difficult; I can’t cope.

How to handle anticipatory grief

Galligher says it’s important to “allow yourself to experience these emotions in real time.” She also suggests that you try to have a good support system in place so that when the loss actually happens, you have people you can rely on for help.

“It’s important to remind yourself that you’ll handle the loss when you get to it,” Galligher says. “You can’t ‘pre-grieve.’”

Galligher suggests that you do your best to “interrupt” intrusive, ruminating thoughts about the future. Meaning, try to stop yourself and think of something else when you start to obsessively think about what life will be like after your loss.

“While it’s important to acknowledge that things are changing and to create space to move through the feelings you may have about these changes, it isn’t helpful to stay rooted in these thoughts and feelings for a prolonged amount of time,” Galligher explains. “For some people, it’s helpful to set aside a discreet amount of time at different intervals to consider the ‘what ifs’ related to anticipated loss. Once the allotted time expires, it’s time to shift your focus onto other things.”

Galligher recommends doing your best to try to stay present. “Worrying about what’s next won’t change the process, so it’s important to acknowledge the fear and then work on refocusing on the here and now,” she says. “Spending intentional time with your loved one while they’re still present is also an important component of coping.”

When to seek help for anticipatory grief

Galligher recommends getting help for anticipatory grief when you recognize that you’re experiencing it—and to help prepare yourself for what’s to come. “You don’t want to have a loss that you knew about and then are scrambling to deal with,” she says. “Get involved with therapy now, because those emotions will continue to affect you.”

But Galligher suggests seeking therapy sooner rather than later if you find yourself so preoccupied with anticipatory grief that you’re having trouble focusing on the present. “Counseling can help you find ways to shift your focus in ways that are both healthy and effective,” she says.

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