Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is different than conventional grief. You feel anticipatory grief before someone dies. You feel conventional grief afterwards.

This type of grief can be experienced by both the loved ones of someone who is nearing death and the person who is actually dying.

You may have mixed feelings while a loved one is dying. You may hold on to hope while also beginning to let go. These emotions can be deeply painful. To make matters worse, people are less likely to get support for their grief at this time.

Sometimes, other people who have not been through this experience may react poorly. They may think you are giving up on the dying person.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help cope with the grief you feel for someone who is still here.

This article describes anticipatory grief and some of the strategies that may help both the dying and their loved ones during this time.

Woman with her head down in grief
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Understanding Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is deep sadness felt during the last days of life. It can be experienced by both the dying person and the dying person's loved ones.

Grief before death gives you a chance to say goodbye that you don't have when a loved one dies suddenly. Still, grief before death doesn't replace or even shorten the period of grieving that follows death.

People sometimes use words like "battle" and "fight" to describe terminal illness. These metaphors incorrectly suggest that patients can "beat" their illness with enough effort. This can make it hard for the dying person and their loved ones to express grief before death.

Not everyone feels anticipatory grief, but it is common.

Feeling grief while your loved one is still alive does not mean you are abandoning your loved one or giving up. Instead, anticipatory grief may give you a chance to gain meaning and closure you might not have had otherwise.

You may feel like you are somewhere between holding on and letting go. Some people find this very painful. They may feel they are betraying their loved one if they lean at all towards letting go.

The truth is, it is possible to live with both holding on and letting go at the same time. You don't have to choose.

Tips for Coping with Anticipatory Grief

These tips may help you cope with anticipatory grief. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel when facing the death of a loved one.

Allow Yourself to Feel and Grieve

Let yourself feel the pain in your heart. This helps you be honest and true with yourself.

Anticipatory grief is not just grief for the coming death of a loved one. It is also grief for the other losses that go along with death, such as:

  • The loss of a companion
  • The loss of shared memories
  • The loss of dreams for the future

Sometimes, grief from the past may resurface during this time.

Denying the pain you feel now can prolong grief later on. Grief serves a purpose, whether it occurs before death or after death.

Researchers have identified four phases and tasks of grief. The tasks include:

  • Accepting the coming loss
  • Working through the pain
  • Adjusting to a new reality where your loved one is absent
  • Connecting to your loved one in a different way as you move forward

This doesn’t mean you should give up on your loved one or forget them. Instead, these tasks will help you hold onto the joy and love you once shared. They can also help stop the deep sadness that may make remembering painful.

Recap

Let yourself grieve. Denying your grief now may prolong the grief you feel after your loved one dies.

Don’t Go It Alone: Express Your Pain

It’s important to let yourself feel your pain. Still, many people find it hard to express grief before death. They may feel they are being unsupportive of their dying loved one. Talking to a trusted friend is a good way to cope with these feelings.

Nobody should have to face anticipatory grief alone. Keeping your feelings to yourself can lead to loneliness and isolation.

Anticipatory grief is similar to the grief you feel after someone dies. One big difference is that there is often more anger. You may also find it harder to control your emotions.

Someone who does not have a loved one facing death has no way of understanding how you feel. Even someone who has been through the death of a loved one will have experienced it differently.

It can be upsetting when someone tries to tell you what to do or how to feel. Some people react to this unsolicited advice with anger. Others simply shut down. Neither will help you cope.

Find a friend who doesn't judge and will let you express anger. This person should be a good listener and should not try to "fix things" or tell you how you should feel.

If your friend tries to share unwanted advice, speak up. Let your friend know you want someone who will listen and not try to fix things.

There is no easy fix for your emotions. Still, a good listener can help you feel less alone.

Online support groups can also be helpful. Groups like CancerCare provide support for caregivers of people with terminal illnesses.

Recap

Find someone to talk to who will listen without judging or trying to "fix" things.

Spend Time With Your Dying Loved One

People sometimes talk about how hard it is to spend time with a dying loved one. They may not want to remember their loved one as they were dying. Instead, they may want to remember how the person was before their illness.

Spending time with a dying loved one is important. This is true not just for the person who is dying but also for close loved ones. If you decide not to visit your dying loved one, you may regret your choice later on.

Find meaningful ways to spend time together. Try sharing old photographs or memorabilia. Ask your loved one to share stories about family heirlooms and other possessions like jewelry. You may find that reminiscing can be cleansing.

Consider making videos of your loved one sharing stories. These recordings can be shared with children, friends, and other family members.

You can also try giving your loved one a hand or foot massage. This can help reduce pain and stiffness of arthritis. It can also provide needed touch.

Reading your loved one's favorite novels out loud is another meaningful way to spend time together.

Everyone finds meaning in different things. Ultimately, the activities you choose are not important. What's important is the time you spend with the person, even if it's in silence.

Don't underestimate the impact of spending time together, even in silence.

You may feel nervous about visiting your loved one. Many people fear they will break down and make their loved one's grief even worse. This is why it can be helpful to learn how to talk to a dying loved one. 

Keep in mind that your loved one almost certainly prefers to see you, even if there are tears.

You may be afraid your loved one will want to talk about their death. If you feel anxious, take some time to think about and face your own fears. It's possible that you will upset your loved one more by avoiding the subject than by talking about it.

Let Children Express Their Grief

Children also experience anticipatory grief. It is just as important for kids to work through their grief. Still, kids are often given fewer chances to express themselves, even in most hospice settings.

Studies have shown that children who don't have an opportunity to grieve are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression later in life.

Children need to be included in the grieving process. They also need a safe place to express themselves.

There are several grief myths about children and teens. For example, it is a myth that children don't feel an impending loss as deeply.

One study found that parents with advanced cancer were not aware of how deeply distressed their children were. On the other hand, this study also found that these children learned to value other family relationships much more than children who did not have a parent with cancer.

Talking about death with children who have a seriously ill parent has been shown to be helpful. It can help decrease anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. Children need to know they will be cared for after the death. They need to understand they won’t be abandoned.

There are many good books to help children cope with death and dying. Some of the tips below, like art therapy, may also be helpful for children.

Consider a Retreat

The organization Inheritance of Hope offers Legacy Retreats for young families facing the death of a parent. These retreats are all-expense-paid trips for qualified families with children under 18.

Legacy Retreats help families form lifelong memories. These families also get help learning to cope with a parent's terminal diagnosis.

Consider Journaling

Keeping a journal can be healing. It can help you express things you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with a friend. A journal can also be a place to record thoughts you had around the time of your loved one’s death.

Some people prefer a private journal. Others may want to use a site like CaringBridge. This type of forum can help you share thoughts and feelings with friends and family. It also lets you share updates and requests for help.

You may also want to try writing letters. For example, a letter to your dying loved one might help you say all the things you've been wanting to say.

If you are the person who is dying, consider writing letters to your children or other family members. Some people write letters to be opened on future occasions like birthdays or graduations. Letters are a great way to express emotions and can be a gift to those left behind.

Take Advantage of Holistic Methods of Coping

A holistic approach may be helpful both for the dying person and their loved ones. Some of these therapies have been found to help with emotions like anxiety.

A few small studies found that a holistic approach can help bring hope and healing to people who are grieving.

Some examples include:

Nurture Your Spirituality

Spirituality is important for those who are dying and for their caregivers. Spirituality takes many forms, including:

  • Organized religion and prayer
  • Meditation
  • Communing with nature
  • Listening to music that is meaningful to you

Studies have shown that people have better quality of life in their last days if they have an active spiritual life. Caregivers may also experience less depression if their dying loved one has an active spiritual life.

What is good for the dying person may also be good for their loved ones. One review found that spirituality can be helpful for the family and friends of the dying. Spirituality is associated with a better quality of life and a lower risk of disease and death.

Recap

An active spiritual life can help both the dying person and the dying person's loved ones.

Maintain a Sense of Humor

There’s not much room for humor when someone is dying. Still, in the right setting, humor can sometimes be healing.

In fact, one review found a strong benefit of humor in the end-of-life setting. Humor can benefit the patient and loved ones alike.

It may take some thought to bring humor to your loved one's bedside. Humor is helpful in many ways, but it's important not to trivialize your loved one's situation. Don't make jokes about pain, for example. Avoid too much laughter if the dying person has sore ribs or belly pain.

One person might enjoy funny emails and memes. Others may enjoy funny movies or television. Some people may even appreciate jokes about death. If you think it's appropriate, do an internet search for "dying jokes."

Keep in mind there is a time and place for this kind of humor. Not everyone who is dying will appreciate jokes like this one:

Humor at the End of Life

Four buddies are talking about death. One asks, "When you're in your casket and friends and family gather around, what would you like them to say about you?"

The first guy says, "I would like them to pay tribute to my three decades of outstanding leadership." The second says, "I want to be remembered as a wonderful husband and devoted father."

The last guy pipes up plaintively, "I hope to hear them say, 'STOP THE FUNERAL, HE'S MOVING.'"

Some cancer centers even offer laughter therapy for people with advanced cancer. It is true that laughter isn't always helpful. Sometimes, though, it can lighten a heavy mood.

Practice Forgiveness

Forgiveness is healing. Learning to forgive yourself is just as important as forgiving others.

The time before death is very emotional. There may be anger and resentment among family members. Still, this is also a time to resolve differences.

Listening is an important first step towards forgiveness. People often say the same things, just in different ways.

Sometimes, though, there are clear differences. When you are irritated with another family member, ask yourself this question: "Is it more important to love or to be right?"

Someone once said resentment is a poison you prepare for another and drink yourself. Letting go of resentment and pain from the past is freeing. Give yourself the gift of forgiveness.​

Give Your Loved One Permission to Die

Sometimes, a dying person may remain until a specific moment. For example, they may wait for a graduation, a birthday, or a visit from a loved one.

Some people seem to wait to die until after a loved one says goodbye. The goodbye can act as permission to die.

This can be helpful for the dying person and for loved ones. A goodbye can be a beautiful gift.

Summary

Anticipatory grief is the grief you feel before a person has died. It is a common experience.

There are many ways to cope with anticipatory grief, but everyone grieves in individual ways. 

It is important to let yourself grieve. It may also be helpful to find someone to talk to who won't judge you or offer unwanted advice.

Try to spend time with your dying loved one, even if it's difficult. Talk to children about death and grief and let them express themselves. Children with terminally ill parents may also benefit from a family retreat.

Other coping strategies can include journaling, writing letters, and holistic approaches like meditation and art therapy. Spirituality can also be helpful for both the dying and their loved ones.

A sense of humor can help both you and your loved one. It is also important to practice forgiveness, and to give your loved one permission to die. 

A Word From Verywell

Talking about anticipatory grief and ways of coping can be hard. The tips above might help ease some of the pain, but grief is personal. Everyone passes through it in their own way and in their own time.

Don't underestimate how this affects you. You are running a marathon of emotional miles. Be kind to yourself and pamper yourself. Give yourself permission to simply do nothing at times, or only things that serve you alone.

Sacrificing to support another at the end of life is one of the most important things you will ever do. Just make sure not to sacrifice your own health and well-being along the way.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I stop grieving over my terminal cancer diagnosis?

    Let yourself experience these emotions and move towards acceptance. Researchers have found that those who adapt in this way may be better able to live more intentionally. This can allow you to enjoy a better quality of life.

  • Why am I grieving for a sick parent who hasn’t died yet?

    Feeling a sense of loss and grief for someone before they die is an example of anticipatory grief in which your emotions begin to surface as you anticipate that someone will soon pass away. It’s important to work through this grief and begin confronting what your parent’s death means for you in order to help your loved one and yourself.

  • When does anticipatory grief begin?

    Everyone grieves and responds differently to news about a terminal diagnosis. Anticipatory grief can begin as soon as you’re told a loved one may die soon, or there may be a delay as you process that information, but this type of grief precedes the person’s passing.

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