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G is for grief - anticipatory

“Grief is in two parts. The first in loss. The second is the remaking of life” Anne Roiphe

There are many different stages of grief. This post is about a specific area of grief – anticipatory grief – the anticipation of death of a loved one (or your own) and the associated emotions and subsequent feelings.

Grief that occurs before death is different to grief after death (conventional grief). As well as anticipation of the actual death itself, this type of grief brings up feelings of loss that will occur on the event of death e.g. the loss of a companion, family member, friend, role model, part of your support network, or in the case of one’s own death , grief for the loss of seeing your children grow up, goals that you won’t be able to achieve, dreams that you won’t be able to fulfil etc.

Anticipatory grief also reflects concerns about changing roles in the family and can include fear of the future e.g. financial changes, change of living circumstances etc. When one is experiencing grief it also often brings to mind memories of other episodes of grief in the past.

Experiencing anticipatory grief can be a very confusing time – it often feels like you are stuck in a ‘limbo land’ and are on an emotional roller coaster. On the one hand you find yourself holding onto hope and not wanting to give up and on the other there is a need to be realistic, learning not to resist and finding a way to find peace and be prepared to let go. It is often difficult to find balance the two.

Like anything there are a myriad of ‘helpful’ sites to advise and often those surrounding or supporting the person suffering – either for the impending loss of a loved one or their own different-than-planned death – have their own thoughts, opinions, issues etc People rush to offer consoling words of comfort, opinions on how the death is likely to pan out, and some can exhibit a seemingly unhealthy desire to demand a blow-by- blow account not only of how the situation is unfolding but expect you to try and dissect and communicate your own feelings etc when you barely know yourself and your energy is limited. Comparisons with previous deaths of other people are also not helpful and it is useful to remember that every death is different and what might have worked as a useful platitude or technique in the past isn’t always appropriate in another situation as each one is unique.

“Your feelings are valid and real. Do not let anybody denounce them just because they do not feel the same way. These feelings do not make you weak, or clingy, or overly emotional. They make you strong, brave, and beautiful. You are not merely made of stardust; you are the comet streaking through the sky on the way to do good and bright things.”

Courtney Peppernell

Everyone responds differently to death. Some people are capable of holding it all in and don’t allow themselves to experience the gamut of associated emotions while a loved one (or themselves) is/are actually dying because it might be construed as giving up hope or they are afraid of losing the plot completely. For others, the anticipatory grief before the actual loss is like being on an uncontrollable roller coaster of contradictory emotions that they can no more hold back than they can hold back the tide. There is no ‘right or wrong’ way to experience grief; all we can do is each to respond authentically with the mental, emotional and physical resources that we have at the time and this is likely to be different from day to day.

“Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size.” Mark Twain

There is a positive to anticipatory grief in that you are being given the privilege of time to process your feelings whilst the person is still alive and a chance to find closure and say goodbye. For those who are dying anticipatory grief allows an opportunity for personal growth at the end of life; a way to find meaning and closure too. Others are not so fortunate when confronted with an unexpected or sudden death and have to go from thinking all is fine with the world to having their world turned upside down.

It is not uncommon for friends or family members to avoid visiting a dying loved one, wanting to remember their loved one the way they were before. They are often concerned about whether they can handle their own emotions whilst visiting their loved one in person because we are so often taught to hide our emotions and for fear of not wanting to cause further distress to the person concerned but anticipatory grief in this setting can be healing for both parties..

Those that one would expect to support you can also suddenly appear ‘conspicuous by their absence’ when they know that you have someone close to you nearing their final days. This is possibly through fear of revisiting uncomfortable emotions for themselves, for fear of not knowing what to say, or are genuinely caught up in their own immediate, pressing situation. In some instances you can be grateful for the space that you are given as there is no pressure to respond, keep people up to date etc but at other times it can serve to reinforce your feelings of isolation and there is a tendency to ‘interpret’ the lack of communication in less than helpful ways.

Anticipatory grief does not replace conventional grief and everyone will experience both types differently according to the situation, your relationship with the person etc Even if a loved one’s health has been declining for a long time, nothing can really prepare you for the actual death.

“I miss that feeling of connection.

Knowing he was out there somewhere thinking about me at the same time I was thinking about him.” Ranata Suzuki

Because of the uncertain nature of a prolonged scenario, the emotions that accompany anticipatory grief, although similar to those which occur after an actual loss, can be more of a roller coaster. Some days may feel really hard, whilst others are easier. It’s hard to know how to navigate our feelings in the midst of such but it is worth remembering that everything we experience is normal, there is no right or wrong way and our grief is a vessel for our healing and acceptance.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” Leo Tolstoy

Everyone grieves differently but here are some typical emotions that might be encountered.

Anger – Anger can be your own or your loved ones

Anxiety Anxiety is common and this can often be accompanied with physical symptoms such as sleep difficulty and memory problems.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” C.S. Lewis

Fear Fear can be of death itself or of the changes that will be associated with losing a loved one.

Guilt – This can be experienced for many reasons – guilt that you are living and your loved one is dying, guilt that you want your loved one to be free of pain, guilt as to whether you have done all that you can and made the right decisions etc


“Deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope Elizabeth Gilbert

Isolation - A sense of intense loneliness can often be experienced because of an unwillingness to show ones emotions or a feeling that it’s not socially acceptable to express feelings of an anticipatory nature and because of lack of contact from others who can often take a step back

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling

Irritability - With your energy reserves at a low point or being stretched it is easy to feel irritated by those around you; by careless words or actions or anything that distracts you from trying to get on with the task in hand or remain calm.

A sense of sadness - You can experience moments of unexpected sadness and tears can suddenly appear and often when you least expect. Small insignificant things, may suddenly create a painful reminder of a loved one; or other more obvious things such as passing a cemetery, a storyline on tv etc and the feelings that arise are as powerful as if it is the first time you were aware of an impending loss.

"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” William Shakespeare

In addition to these emotions, it is common to have a desire to talk/have someone listen/need for someone to understand you without judgment or just be given space to process things at your own pace.

Carrying out conversations, questioning or visualizing scenarios in your head of what it will be like to have your loved one gone is also normal. If it is yourself who is dying, visualizing might be about how your loved ones will carry on after your death.

“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.” Arthur Golden

Anticipatory grief doesn’t necessarily make the grieving process easier, it’s hard to let our loved ones go, but in some cases when we see those we love weak and tired it can make death seem more natural and part of the inevitable cycle of life. Grieving before death also provides opportunities for closure that people who lose loved ones suddenly never have.

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” Jamie Anderson

Finally when one feels alone it is worth reminding ourselves that grief is something we all experience and is another sign that we are all connected

“We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world--the company of those who have known suffering.” Helen Keller

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