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Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is the name given to the mix of emotions experienced when we are living in expectation of loss and grieving because of it. A loss can be the change in expectations, finances, disabilities, roles and responsibilities as well as longevity.  Anticipatory grief is particularly relevant to those who have received a terminal diagnosis and for those who love and care for them.

A terminal or serious diagnosis changes the very structure of our existence, takes away our control and our ability to hope and plan for the future. When someone we love is given a serious or terminal illness diagnosis, we become painfully aware of the fragility of life and may even fear for our own mortality.

Anticipatory grief is often characterized by the following conditions:
  • A high level of physical strain involved in caring for the ill over prolonged periods
  • Loss of energy and vitality
  • Social isolation as the family closes in upon itself and becomes too exhausted and involved in care giving to reach out to others
  • A loss of real identity as individual members become so totally engrossed in the role of caregiver
  • Increased family stress, which causes ordinary dynamics to intensify
  • A manifestation of weaknesses and strengths, including alcoholism, emotional problems, etc.
  • The closing down of relationships and communication, leading to the inability to express tension which can increase problems.
  • Financial stress (Insurance is seldom adequate.)
  • Increased fears. The uncertainty of the situation takes its toll. The emotional strain, as hope rises and falls, can be unbearable. Fears arise: fears of the actual death, fears of a crisis, and fears of not being able to handle what happens. The anguish of watching a loved one suffer can be devastating.

If death actually results,  relief is not generally accepted as an appropriate reaction to grief, so the bereaved may feel guilt about that response. Although death might still be traumatic, a period of prolonged illness often provides the opportunity to come to an understanding about the transition. It may be difficult to refocus on oneself after denying or compromising one’s own needs during that time.

Generally, the impact of an anticipated death is lessened by the preparation time, and the bereaved can move more easily through the grief process than with unexpected death.