By: Stephanie Slater MA RCC CCC
Anticipatory grief refers to the emotional process people go through when they anticipate a loss, such as the death of a loved one. It is a normal response to a significant life change, but it can be challenging to cope with. According to a study by Prigerson et al. (2009), anticipatory grief is experienced by approximately 30% of caregivers of patients with advanced cancer. In my clinical practice, I’ve also seen people grieve the loss of aging parents. Anticipatory grief can be a difficult experience and in this blog post I discuss 3 common factors among people who experience anticipatory grief and also 5 ways to manage this challenging experience. Remember, it’s important to speak with your doctor or mental health professional when it comes to your specific needs.
Heightened Emotional Response:
One of the top features of people who suffer from anticipatory grief is a heightened emotional response. They may experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, and fear. These emotions can be overwhelming and difficult to manage. According to a study by Melhem et al. (2011), individuals who experience anticipatory grief have higher levels of depression and anxiety than those who do not.
Changes in Daily Functioning:
Another feature of people who suffer from anticipatory grief is changes in daily functioning. They may experience difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and difficulty concentrating. These changes can impact their ability to carry out their daily activities. A study by Schulz et al. (2003) found that caregivers of patients with advanced cancer who experienced anticipatory grief had more difficulty with daily tasks than those who did not.
Preoccupation with the Future:
Finally, people who suffer from anticipatory grief may experience preoccupation with the future. They may worry about what life will be like after the loss and how they will cope. This preoccupation can be distressing and interfere with their ability to enjoy the present moment. A study by Kissane et al. (2012) found that anticipatory grief was associated with a sense of loss of control over the future.
In my work specializing in counselling those with anxiety and high achievers, it is common for these folks to think quite far into the future. It only makes sense that when faced with a loss they might also start to grieve an impending loss before it has actually occurred.
Now that we have discussed the top three features of people who suffer from anticipatory grief, let’s explore five ways to manage it.
1. Seek Support
One of the most effective ways to manage anticipatory grief is to seek support. This can be in the form of talking to friends or family members, joining a support group, or seeing a therapist. A study by Aoun et al. (2015) found that seeking support was associated with lower levels of distress in caregivers of patients with advanced cancer.
2. Practice Self-Care
Another way to manage anticipatory grief is to practice self-care. This can include getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise. Taking care of yourself can help you feel better physically and emotionally. A study by Vitaliano et al. (2013) found that caregivers who engaged in self-care had lower levels of distress than those who did not. Many of my clients struggle with self-care for a variety of reasons. Many who are grieving feel guilt about going to gym, taking care of their diets, or taking time out for themselves when they know that they’re loved on is dying. If you’re in this situation, firstly know that I am sorry. Secondly, taking care of yourself will prevent you from burning out and help you show up better for your loved one. Self-care is not selfish.
3. Accept Your Feelings
It is important to accept your feelings when you are experiencing anticipatory grief. This means acknowledging and allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, or anxious. Trying to suppress or ignore your feelings can make them more intense. A study by Boelen et al. (2010) found that accepting emotions was associated with better psychological adjustment in people who experienced anticipatory grief.
4. Focus on the Present Moment
Preoccupation with the future is a common feature of anticipatory grief. One way to manage this preoccupation is to focus on the present moment. This can be done through mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga. A study by Carlson et al. (2007) found that mindfulness practices were effective in reducing stress and anxiety in caregivers of patients with advanced cancer.
5. Find Meaning in the Experience
Finally, finding meaning in the experience of anticipatory grief can be a helpful way to manage it. This can involve identifying personal growth or positive changes that have resulted from the experience. A study by Neimeyer et al. (2014) found that finding meaning was associated with better psychological adjustment in people who experienced anticipatory grief.
In conclusion, anticipatory grief is a normal response to a significant life change, but it can be challenging to cope with. People who experience anticipatory grief may have a heightened emotional response, changes in daily functioning, and preoccupation with the future. However, there are ways to manage anticipatory grief, including seeking support, practicing self-care, accepting your feelings, focusing on the present moment, and finding meaning in the experience. By utilizing these strategies, individuals can cope with the challenges of anticipatory grief and move forward in a positive way.