Anticipatory Grief-What is it and Why?
By Nichole Williams, MSW
“When will the grief go away?” is often a question that we as grievers, and our family and friends, say to ourselves, or one another. We expect that these feelings will disappear after a certain time frame, sometimes people want us to “get over it.” Grief doesn’t go away, but in turning inward to work through our grief, we grow emotionally and spiritually. We will heal in some ways, but life will never be the same as it was before. Often times the grief begins before our loved one passes away, often it begins the day our loved one is diagnosed with their illness. We call this Anticipatory Grief. The feelings are much the same, with tightness in our chest, feeling out of control, being emotional, feeling scared, wanting to “wake up from this nightmare”, and questioning the meaning of life. Anticipatory grief is not just about the future death of our loved one, but also the losses that are already occurring.
I have counseled many patients and their loved ones on what anticipatory grief is, what it feels like, and what to do about it. We grieve because we love this person, and we cannot imagine what life will be like without them. It is often a confusing time, and often feels stressful. We are aware of their decline, and we wonder what life will be like without them. We grieve the loss of their abilities, the loss of future dreams, the loss of their cognition, and the loss of what life once was. Often times, during this time, our roles change in our relationship. It is hard to go from being wife, husband, daughter, son, father, mother, sister, brother, friend to being caregiver. We are challenged to provide the best care possible, and be strong for our loved ones. Our loved one may be changing before our eyes and it is hard to watch. We may wonder if we are “doing enough.” We bear witness to their pain and suffering while loving them to the best of our ability.
Our loved ones who are dying also experience anticipatory grief. I have spent many moments with patients and their family members helping them share their feelings with one another about what is important to them at this time in their lives. Some people feel that they need time to reconcile or heal their relationship with someone in their life. Some people want to celebrate their lives, spending time with those who are important to them, and to reflect on their lives. Saying goodbye to those they love is hard. Often cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s or other related Dementia is especially challenging for the caregiver as they may not know what their loved ones wants or needs are.
An important part of coping with these feelings is first to recognize them, and second, to accept that anticipatory grief is normal. It is important to find an outlet for sharing these feelings. Some people find talking to be helpful, others may want to read books or articles, and others may find walking in nature to be a comfort. In acknowledging our losses, people can process the emotions that they may be feeling. There is a common myth that if one “holds it all in and be strong” that it will help in “not feeling” the feelings that one is having. By focusing on the reality of what is happening, and putting words to how one is feeling, it can create opportunities to hold on to one another. Each person is going to experience and cope with anticipatory grief in different ways, but by keeping the lines of communication open, it can help everyone better understand one another at a really meaningful time.
Another important part of dealing with anticipatory grief is to take care of yourself-which is often challenging while caring for your loved one-but there are resources! The saying goes “you can’t take care of others if you don’t care of yourself”, and I truly believe this to be true. Caregiving and anticipatory grief can be a long road, and people need to utilize their support systems to continue providing care to their loved ones. Asking a friend or family member to stay with your loved one so you can get out of the house or take a nap goes a long way. Some people find that counseling is helpful to have a place to process complicated emotions without “burdening” someone. This is another way to take some “me time.” Anticipatory grief is a natural part of losing someone we love. We grieve because we love.
As the bereavement coordinator at Front Range Hospice, I provide counseling, grief education, and grief resources to patients, family members, and community members. I see myself as a companion to people who are grieving. I try to provide an empathetic, warm, caring, compassionate presence and space to hear people’s stories, and assist people in processing their feelings.
If you would like more information about Front Range Hospice and how we can support you through your grief process call 303-957-3101 or 970-776-8080 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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