Anticipatory Grief Might Be The Process You Don't Even Realise You're Going Through

"We begin to grieve in advance, bracing ourselves for the impending loss."
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Although you may not have heard of the term ‘anticipatory grief’, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced it at some point.

Anticipatory grief is the grief we feel when we know a significant loss or major life change is on its way. For example, if someone we love has received a diagnosis of a terminal illness or dementia, we begin to grieve in advance, bracing ourselves for the impending loss.

First and foremost – give your feelings your attention as and when emotions arise. Whatever you are feeling is right for you.

Anticipatory creates a great wave of being out of control and that brings fear. Anything we fear we try to avoid. Acknowledge the different emotions, whatever they are. These can include - denial, anger, anxiety, fear, helplessness.

By acknowledging these reactions and allowing them to surface will help your brain and body make the necessary adjustments. All of these feelings are tendrils of our grief and don’t follow a particular pattern. It’s your own unique reaction to the shock – think of it being like a train being derailed.

If you look at each different emotion as a carriage, they need to be checked out and inspected before being put back on the track. A good way to identify how it is making you feel is to sit quietly on your own and try and find words to describe how you are feeling.

Use this time wisely

Once the loss takes place, we can be left with unresolved grief if we feel there are things we should have said or done or not said or done. This is your opportunity to clean the slate. Even in the best relationships, we still need the opportunity to say ‘I love you’ one more time.

Anticipatory grief can also create an inner conflict because we have the guilt of not wanting to lose our loved yet we do not want them to suffer. Our grief in anticipation can also feel completely different to our grief in real time. It’s never predictable or straightforward.

It’s natural to feel a loss of control during this challenging time and it’s good to just step back and identify the things that you can control and also the things you cannot control.

Things you can’t control

The diagnosis.

Timing: We never know exactly when the loss will happen and this can keep us running on adrenalin.

The reactions of others: As with all grief experiences, our feelings and reactions are totally unique to each of us and there is no set pattern. It is our own journey. This is important to grasp as comparisons to others who are experiencing the impending loss alongside us, can be so different from our own feelings. To cope with an impending loss well, we need to have confidence in our instinctive reactions to it, and that means identifying what we feel regardless of what we think we should be feeling or how anyone else is feeling or what others may expect us to feel.

Your emotions: So many things come into play when we grieve - our learnings about loss in childhood, previous ( unresolved ) losses can enmesh in our anticipatory grief and confuse and complicate our emotions. Allow it to just be.

Things you can control

Support network

It is so important that you have someone who can be your sounding board and hold you up when it all gets too much. Someone who will let you talk and give you gentle nudges in the right direction. People can sometimes be very quick to know exactly what you should do, and can often say the wrong thing, but each situation is totally unique and you will know. Learn to trust your initial instincts and trust yourself and don’t be afraid to say what it is that you need. Engage with medical staff or carers so you are informed at each step and can process the stages. When people offer help, take it. You need to care for yourself so you can care for your loved one.

Emotional care

You will rail against the unfairness of it but coming to the realisation that you have no choice will open you spiritually as you find an inner strength. Sometimes it is in the most adverse and challenging times of our lives where we have our greatest learnings and through these experiences we can actually become better people. Our appreciation of love and life deepens ands gains more value.

Fresh air and exercise

There is nothing better to soothe and clear your head than a walk in nature. Try to take a daily walk or at least every other day. The rhythm of your footfall and the fresh air can be better than medicine. If you have a dog that’s even better.


Be honest in your words and actions as this opens the door for truthful and meaningful conversations and enhanced feelings of love. You will dig deep into your reserves for the patience needed in a situation of dementia and it’s ok in those moments when your frustration takes over. You are only human and shouldn’t berate yourself. Mantras and mindfulness can help to find a sense of balance. Don’t underestimate the power of fresh air and exercise.

Making memories

This is huge. Any kind of grief isn’t just emotional, it’s physical too. By physically doing things you are working through something. Really think about what is important and what you will need to feel complete. Make your words a gift to both of you. Say and do the right thing. Have conversations whilst you can, take as many trips as you like down memory lane, visit places and people, before it’s too late. Apologise, forgive, complete. Choose photos together and create rituals. Read to them. Find what works for you.

Memories become a candle in the dark and forge a lifelong bond with those we love. Make good ones.

Knowing that there is an impending loss can make us realise the value and importance of our life and we don’t want to waste time. We want to make every second count.

Try this – think about what will be important to you at the end of your life and then ask yourself why isn’t it important today?

And that will keep you focused on the things you want to accomplish before you die. This is called living.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience as a grief and funeral care specialist and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ.