Grief is easily one of the most complex human emotions. Experiencing grief can mean intense sadness, rushes of anger, periods of numbness, difficulty focusing, and more—and it all comes and goes in waves that can last for years after a loss. While we traditionally associate the feeling with the death of a loved one, we experience grief for all kinds of things— periods of time that are coming to a close (like a baby's newborn phase or graduating from college), relationships that have ended, or places that no longer exist as they once did. No matter what causes grief, it is a hard feeling to sit with. And, notably, the loss doesn't have to have happened yet to cause these grief-fueled emotions—you can feel something called anticipatory grief as well.
What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is grief for an ending we know is coming, but has not yet occurred. "We would say it is the grief that starts any time we're aware that a death or another type of loss is imminent," says Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C, co-founder of whatsyourgrief.com. "It doesn't have to be short-term—it can be a long-term thing—but it starts when we have awareness."
Anticipatory grief is different from post-loss grief because the loss isn't concrete yet, so there is guesswork and questioning happening in our minds. "Our brain is trying to imagine what the world will look like and feel like after this loss occurs, which is, of course, very different from living in the reality of the loss," says Williams. So the approximation may not be close to how the loss really plays out, as grief is such an incredibly complex emotion. "Grief is so different for each person, whether it's pre- or post-loss," says Kriston Wenzel, LBSW, CT, a grief specialist at the Hospice of Red River Valley in Fargo, N.D.
Why do we experience anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is hard, but it is not without purpose. For those who experience a sudden loss, they haven't been able to "plan" (so to speak), or process, for the way their life changes in the same way that someone who's sat with anticipatory grief has. "With anticipated losses, we can imagine that this person won't be able to fill the spaces and roles we've gotten used to having them in, and we can think about what we will do and how we will fill these spaces," says Williams. (This goes for other types of losses as well, not just deaths.) "Unexpected losses are far more destabilizing because we haven't been able to accommodate the possibility of loss," she explains.
However, it's a common misconception that anticipatory grief somehow eases or lessens the feelings of grief when the loss does occur. "People will think they have emotionally prepared themselves because they have imagined the loss, but what happens is usually the opposite. They realize it's different or worse than they envisioned," which can be difficult, says Williams. Wenzel recalls a friend whose husband died of Lou Gerhig's disease after a long battle with it: "She told me [near the end of his life] 'I've already grieved. I'm done. I feel like I've gone through everything I have to.' And then he died. She called me and said, 'I guess it wasn't quite that easy, was it?' None of us know what we're going to feel."
What are the signs of anticipatory grief?
While anticipatory grief precedes post-loss grief, the signs and feelings are very similar: bouts of crying, anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and poor concentration can all be indicators you're experiencing this feeling. You may not even be able to make the connection yet between your feelings and the grief you're experiencing. It can sometimes be a more abstract connection than with post-loss grief, since it can be harder to let yourself admit that grief is what you're feeling when the loss hasn't occurred.
"And anticipatory grief may not mean you are feeling sad about the death specifically," says Wenzel. "It can also be sadness about the fact that you're never going to get to do something with that person again, or sadness about the first wedding anniversary without them [on the horizon]." Anticipatory grief can also cause intense feelings of guilt, explains Williams. "People often feel like they should be maintaining hope at all times, and it can feel like a betrayal of that hope if we're starting to imagine the world without that person," she says. But it's important to understand that it is not—all of these feelings are very, very valid and normal.
How can you cope with anticipatory grief?
First, don't beat yourself up. "You can feel two things at once! You can be hopeful and still be realistic," says Williams. "Anticipatory grief doesn't mean you've given up." And that means letting yourself really feel the grief. Even though it's painful, trying to avoid it will only make it more difficult in the end.
"Try to create a space for this grief," says Williams. "A lot of people find it really helpful to set 'grief time' aside and write in a journal, create art, or just spend time with that person." Creating this space can not only help you avoid feeling numb or disconnected, it can also help if the opposite is true, when the grief seems overwhelming. By setting aside time to experience your feelings, says Williams, if you feel a wave come over you at work, you can acknowledge it while remembering you're going to give yourself time to journal about it that night. "Having a space set aside helps you feel some sense of control—something we don't have much of when we're grieving," says Williams.
You can also work on your grief "plan," so to speak, says Wenzel, if you're the kind of person for whom that would be healing. "Start thinking: What are your plans? How are you going to honor this person's life? People feel like it's going to be so hard, I don't know what I'm going to do, I'm not going to be able to get out of bed. But if you can reframe it in the sense of 'what are you going to do to honor the life that they lived?', that can be very helpful for people," she says.
These kinds of questions can also be helpful if you're anticipating the grief of an upcoming move, a pet, or even a part of your life. "Loss is something we all have to face, whether it be the loss of a relationship or friends or jobs or money," says Wenzel. "Grief is grief. But if we can face it in a way that's more positive, it might not be as overwhelming to us."