Preparing for and Anticipating a Loved One's Death

You’re standing at the shore looking out at the water. You know a tsunami is coming but there’s nothing you can do to stop it and nowhere to run.

This is how one woman described waiting for her husband’s death. She was experiencing anticipatory grief, intensely grieving the loss of her partner before his actual death.

Husband at sick wife's side in the hospital
Jose Luis Pelaez/The Image Bank/Getty

Anticipatory grief isn’t much different than the grief that occurs after death. It might include intense sadness, depression, and deep concern for the dying loved one. Feelings of fear, anger, and denial are also normal.

Unlike the grief that occurs after a sudden death, anticipatory grief provides an opportunity to gain closure. Gradually adjusting to life without your loved one, as he becomes unable to do certain activities you once enjoyed together and seemingly become an entire person altogether as they near death, may make it easier to accept the death. People who experience sudden death loss often have intense anger and have difficulty accepting the reality of their loss.

Anticipatory grief also provides an opportunity to say five important things:

  • Will you please forgive me?
  • I forgive you.
  • Thank you.
  • I love you.
  • Goodbye​

Having the chance to bring the relationship full circle can bring a sense of closure and make the grieving process after death easier.

Read more about these five things in my review of the book “The Four Things that Matter Most” by Ira Byock, M.D.

Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief before a loved one’s death, however. Grief is a personal process and anticipatory grief is no different. It requires acceptance of the reality of the death, and not everyone will feel ready to do that. Some people may feel like accepting the death is, in essence, giving up on their loved one.

Rather than viewing anticipatory grief as an abandonment of your loved one and the relationship you share, you can view it as a unique opportunity to solidify that relationship and bring it to completeness.

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