What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is experiencing a sense of grief prior to a loss. Anticipatory grief can be protective, allowing someone to move through difficult emotions, and to emotionally prepare for the loss to come. In fact, some researchers use the term preparedness as a synonym for anticipatory grief, as it is a normal and often functional part of loss when we are aware a loss is on the horizon. Stressful life events, particularly those that are threatening or traumatic, can particularly impact and worsen anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief can cause an increased experience of ambiguous loss because we mourn something while it is still present in our lives. In some cases, the anticipated loss does not actually happen, but that doesn't invalidate the grief that has already been experienced.
What can anticipatory grief feel like?
Psychologically and emotionally preparing for a loss
Feeling anxious or worried
Thinking about the loss frequently
Feelings of sadness and grief as if the loss has occurred
Making practical decisions to prepare for the loss
Making decisions as if the loss has already happened
Emotionally and physically disconnecting from the person/place we anticipate losing
What can you do to prevent or reduce anticipatory grief?
Some anticipatory grief is a normal and functional part of life. However, chronic and unmanageable anticipatory grief is not helpful.
Grieve in small doses.
Research indicates that adaptive, healthy coping involves switching back and forth between taking time to confront the loss to come and then taking the time to think about other things and to find opportunities for respite. This balancing back and forth between the two experiences (confronting and restoring) is critical to healthy coping.
Build up your resources.
When confronting a loss, there are two parts: 1) Recognizing the seriousness of the loss to come and, 2) Appraising if we have the resources to cope with the loss. When we feel the loss will overpower our resources, the experience of anticipatory grief can become more intense. It is important to think about what support you have in your life and where you might have some gaps and need some help.
Increase your sense of control.
Often loss can make us feel out of control of our lives and can lead to an increase in anticipatory grief. It is important to find small tangible ways to feel a sense of self-efficacy and control in your life. For example, setting a very reasonable small goal for yourself and accomplishing that goal every day could be one step towards feeling a greater sense of control over your life circumstances.
Take care of yourself.
People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, have ways to relax and have fun, and have positive relationships with others are generally able to better cope with difficult experiences.
What to do if you are struggling with anticipatory grief?
The first thing to know is that what you’re feeling is normal; it is a normal response to an abnormal situation. After that, a great next step is to talk to a healthcare provider who can talk with you about your concerns and what the next steps might be. If you’re unsure how to access a healthcare provider, check out this resource from Minnesota Department of Health and Human Resources.
Also the Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides several free resources for farmers and people living in rural areas including a helpline and rural mental health specialists, and mobile crisis teams.
Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline
Phone: 833-600-2670 or Text: FARMSTRESS to 898211
Check out their resources and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You deserve it.
Helen N. Sweeting, Mary L.M. Gilhooly, Anticipatory grief: A review, Social Science & Medicine,Volume 30, Issue 10, 1990,Pages 1073-1080, https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-9536(90)90293-2.
Mette Kjaergaard Nielsen, Mette Asbjoern Neergaard, Anders Bonde Jensen, Flemming Bro, Mai-Britt Guldin, Do we need to change our understanding of anticipatory grief in caregivers? A systematic review of caregiver studies during end-of-life caregiving and bereavement, Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 44, 2016, Pages 75-93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.01.002.
Schut, M. S. H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death studies, 23(3), 197-224.
Stroebe, M. S., Folkman, S., Hansson, R. O., & Schut, H. (2006). The prediction of bereavement outcome: Development of an integrative risk factor framework. Social science & medicine, 63(9), 2440-2451.
Coelho, A., de Brito, M., Teixeira, P., Frade, P., Barros, L., & Barbosa, A. (2020). Family Caregivers’ Anticipatory Grief: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Its Multiple Challenges. Qualitative Health Research, 30(5), 693–703. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732319873330.
Reviewed in 2022