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It's Common To Start Grieving Even Before A Loss Happens, Experts Say

When it comes to grief, no two experiences are alike. There’s no roadmap for navigating complex feelings and emotions, and how you respond to an upsetting situation varies on the circumstance. Although grief is commonly spoken about after loss has occurred, if you’re grieving in preparation for an impending loss, you may be experiencing something called anticipatory grief, which happens beforehand.

As the name suggests, anticipatory grief is a complex emotional process that occurs before an expected loss, says Deborah Gilman, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in adults and families impacted by trauma. “Loss” can refer to anything from an impending breakup or divorce to progression of a terminal illness, or the loss of a loved one, for example.

Anticipatory grief is also an extremely individualized emotional process, says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and clinical services instructor at Newport Healthcare in northern California. “People often believe they are ‘grieving wrong’ or grieving for too long, but it’s important to make space for whatever emotions arise during the process of grieving and allow yourself to feel them.” This can look like talking about your feelings, leaning on a trusted friend, and letting yourself cry to process the grief.

Anticipatory grief takes many forms, and the signs and symptoms present differently depending on the situation—so if you’re feeling a bit lost or discouraged right now, you’re not alone. Ahead, psychologists break down everything you need to know about anticipatory grief including the signs, symptoms, and when to seek help.

Meet the experts: Deborah Gilman, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in adults and families impacted by trauma. Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical services instructor at Newport Healthcare in northern California.

What is anticipatory grief?

As mentioned, anticipatory grief is the process of mourning and experiencing emotions associated with loss before the actual event happens, says Dragonette. “It often occurs when individuals are aware that they or someone they care about is facing a significant loss, such as impending death or a major life change.”

Anyone facing an imminent loss or significant life change can experience anticipatory grief, and it doesn’t adhere to a specific timeline, Gilman says. “It can last for weeks, months, or even years before the actual loss occurs.”

Anticipatory grief is common, for example, when a family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, a loved one is aging or experiencing a decline in health and cognitive abilities, the imminent loss of a pet, or the expected end of a relationship such as going through a divorce, says Gilman. “It's the mourning and psychological preparation for an impending death or significant loss, allowing individuals to begin the grieving process before the actual event occurs.”

What does anticipatory grief look like?

Grief looks different for everyone, but a common aspect of anticipatory grief is emotional turbulence, Dragonette says. “Someone facing the impending loss of a loved one might feel a profound sadness and sense of grief as they mentally prepare for the eventual separation,” she says. However, sadness takes many forms and may also include elements of anger, hopelessness, relief, desperation, guilt, or numbness, she adds. Grief isn’t linear, and it’s natural to experience a wide range of emotions.

When dealing with anticipatory grief, you may also find yourself emotionally withdrawn from friends and family as a way to cope with the anticipated separation or loss, says Dragonette. Alternatively, anticipatory grief can intensify connections with family and friends if you’re seeking solace and support, she says.

Another common aspect is the cognitive and/or psychological preparation for the impending loss, says Dragonette. This often presents as constant thoughts and reflections on what life will be like without the person or thing being lost, she says.

Symptoms Of Anticipatory Grief

Emotional

“Anticipatory grief manifests through a spectrum of emotional turmoil, where sorrow, sadness, and a profound sense of loss loom large,” says Gilman. This can include intense waves of sadness, often accompanied by tears and deep-seated melancholy, she says. Feelings of anxiety, worry, fear, guilt, uncertainty, helplessness, powerlessness, and emotional exhaustion can also dominate, she adds.

Behavioral

Behavioral signs of anticipatory grief often manifest as disruptions in daily routines and withdrawn or altered behaviors, says Gilman. “Individuals experiencing anticipatory grief might retreat from their usual activities or social engagements, seeking solitude or isolation as they grapple with overwhelming emotions,” she says. Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, or energy levels are common, and there might be an overall lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities, she adds.

Cognitive

“Cognitive signs of anticipatory grief encompass a persistent preoccupation with the impending loss, dominating one's thoughts and mental landscape,” says Gilman. “Individuals often find themselves consumed by constant rumination, replaying memories and contemplating the anticipated absence or change,” she says. Hyper-fixating on memories, regrets, or feelings of guilt associated with the impending loss is also common, which might lead to difficulty focusing on daily tasks or responsibilities, she adds.

Physical

Physical signs of anticipatory grief often manifest as persistent fatigue or feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted due to the overwhelming emotional strain, says Gilman. This emotional toll might also lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, or stomach discomfort, she says.

Relational

Relational signs often present as shifts in dynamics within your relationships, says Gilman. “Individuals experiencing anticipatory grief might encounter increased tension or conflict within their relationships, particularly with those who share in the impending loss, because differences in coping mechanisms, emotions, or expectations can lead to misunderstandings or disagreements, impacting the quality of interactions,” she explains. On the other hand, some people might seek closer connections like increased intimacy or support from loved ones, she adds.

Stages Of Anticipatory Grief

The traditional five stages of grief can occur with anticipatory grief as well, and it’s common to move back and forth between stages. Many people experience the stages in different orders or revisit certain stages throughout the grieving process. If you’re grieving a future loss, here are some of the phases to watch out for:

  1. Denial: Initially, there might be disbelief or denial about the impending loss.

  2. Anger: As reality sets in, feelings of anger may arise, directed toward the situation, yourself, or others.

  3. Bargaining: You may attempt to negotiate or make deals to change the outcome, seeking a way to avoid the impending loss.

  4. Depression: A deep sense of sadness and hopelessness can emerge as you grapple with the impending loss.

  5. Acceptance: Over time, there may be a gradual acceptance of the situation, allowing you to cope and eventually find ways to move forward.

Are there any positive effects of anticipatory grief?

Although grief is inherently devastating and difficult to deal with, anticipatory grief can also provide an opportunity to gradually come to terms with the impending loss, says Gilman. As a result, this can allow for a gradual adjustment to the emotional impact, giving you time to prepare, adds Dragonette.

“This includes organizing important affairs, creating memories, and spending quality time with loved ones which can offer a sense of control and readiness for the changes ahead,” she says. For some, anticipatory grief can also provide time to find additional support from friends, family, and professional mental health counselors.

Anticipatory grief may also inspire you to focus on making the most of the time you have left with your loved ones, says Gilman. “This period of anticipatory grief offers precious time for individuals to cherish moments, create lasting memories, and express love and gratitude to the person or situation facing the impending loss, but it also allows for crucial conversations, closure, and the opportunity to address unresolved issues or express unspoken sentiments before the person's passing.”

How To Cope With Anticipatory Grief

There isn’t a magic solution to coping with anticipatory grief, but the first step is to recognize your feelings and be intentional with your needs, says Gilman. Allowing yourself to feel the range of emotions—sadness, anger, or guilt—without judgment can aid in the grieving process, facilitating acceptance and emotional healing over time, she says.

That said, having open and honest conversations with loved ones can provide an outlet for expressing emotions and sharing thoughts to foster a sense of connection during a challenging time, says Dragonette. Counseling, therapy, or support groups can also offer a safe space to process your feelings and learn coping strategies, adds Gilman.

Additionally, creating meaningful moments and spending quality time with your loved one can also help you cope and bring a sense of closure or peace, says Gilman. “Engage in activities that hold significance for the individual or the person being lost such as celebrating milestones, creating memory books, or participating in shared traditions,” adds Dragonette.

Finally, self-care is a must, says Gilman. Whether that’s exercise, reading, meditation, or making time for your hobbies, acts of self-care provide moments of respite amidst the emotional turmoil, she says.

When To Seek Professional Help

If anticipatory grief turns into intense emotional distress, isolation, withdrawal, changes in behavior or function, strained relationships, or thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it’s time to seek professional help, says Dragonette. The type of support you seek will likely depend on your needs and preferences, but engaging with a therapist, counselor, or support group can offer a space to process emotions, gain insights, and develop coping mechanisms, she says.

Support groups offer opportunities for shared experiences and validation among those going through similar circumstances, while counselors and grief therapists provide guidance and tools to navigate the emotional journey, says Gilman.

If emotional distress becomes severe, constant, or unwavering, psychiatrists can also provide medical intervention such as prescribing medication, therapy, and behavioral resources, adds Gilman.

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