Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Tips for Coping as Your Loved One is Dying

young women hugging who are experiencing anticipatory grief
Flickr.com/Andy/Creative Commons

Coping with anticipatory grief is different than coping with the grief after someone dies (conventional grief). You may have mixed feelings as you find yourself in that delicate place of maintaining hope, while at the same time beginning to let go. Not only are these emotions deeply painful, but people are often less likely to receive support for their grief at this time. Sometimes grieving before death may even be misconstrued as giving up to someone who hasn’t “been there.” There are a number of things that may help you cope if you are mourning the loss of someone who is still here. Let's review what anticipatory grief is all about, and then talk about what may help you at this time.

Understanding Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is the deep sadness that is often felt during the last days of life. It is often experienced both by the loved ones of someone who is nearing death, and the person who is actually dying. While grief before death does open opportunities to say goodbye that sudden death does not, grieving beforehand doesn’t replace—or even shorten—the period of grieving following death.

This article is written for those who have a loved one who is nearing death and are experiencing grief, but those who are dying also frequently experience this grief. It’s our hope that the suggestions for coping below will help both those who are dying and their loved ones.

Tips for Coping With Anticipatory Grief

The obituaries that speak of “courageous battles” may be beautiful, but they also make it difficult for those caring for a dying loved one (or the person who is actually dying) to fully express the grief they experience prior to death. Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, but it is common.

One study found that 40% of widows found the grief before death to be more stressful than grief after death.

If you are experiencing grief while your loved one is still alive it does not mean that you are abandoning your loved one or giving up. Instead, working through your grief may give you an opportunity to gain meaning and closure you would otherwise not have. Some people find this "inbetween place" between holding on and letting go excruciatingly painful, and feel they are betraying their loved one if they lean at all towards letting go. The truth is, just as people are able to experience joy and sadness at the same time (think of people living in terrible poverty who are still able to enjoy their loved ones), it is possible to live with both holding on and letting go simultaneously. You don't have to choose.

The following tips for coping with anticipatory grief have helped others wade through the challenging emotions, and we hope they will be meaningful for you as well.

Allow Yourself to Feel and Grieve

Allowing yourself to feel the pain in your heart helps you to be honest and true with yourself. Anticipatory grief is not just mourning the impending death of a loved one, but all of the other losses that accompany death. The loss of a companion. The loss of shared memories. The loss of dreams for the future. This is also a time when grief from the past may resurface to be "re-grieved." Denying the pain you feel can prolong grief later on in your journey.

Grief serves a purpose whether it occurs before death or after death. Researchers have helped us out by identifying the four phases and tasks of grief. These tasks begin with accepting the imminent loss, working through the pain, and eventually letting go in a way that allows you to relocate your emotional connection to your loved one in a different place. This doesn’t mean giving up on your loved one or forgetting them. Rather, completing the tasks of grief allows you to hang on to the joy and love you once shared, but without the intense sadness that makes remembering so painful.

Many people find it difficult to express their grief before death because they see it as being unsupportive of their dying loved one. Finding a trusted friend to talk to can be a wonderful first step in coping with this grief.

Don’t Go it Alone: Express Your Pain

It’s important to not only let yourself feel your pain but to share your feelings with a close friend or family member as well.

Nobody should have to face anticipatory grief alone. Keeping your feelings to yourself can result in a feeling of deep loneliness and isolation.

If possible, find a friend who is slow to judge and who will be comfortable as you express anger. Studies suggest that anticipatory grief is similar to the grief after someone dies, but there is often more anger and loss of control over emotions.

Try to find a friend who is able to listen, and doesn't try to "fix things." A friend who can listen who won't tell you what you should do or how you should feel is ideal. There is no right or wrong way to feel when facing the death of a loved one. If we don't have a loved one facing death, we have no way of understanding how another feels. Unless your friend has faced the thing (and no matter how similar, no two people have identical journeys), it can actually be maddening to be advised on what you should do or how you should feel. Some people react to this unsolicited advice in anger, while others simply shut down. Either way, it does not help you better cope.

If your friend is trying to share advice, speak up. Let her know that you only want her to listen and not try to fix things. The emotions you are feeling do not have an easy fix. Yet finding someone to listen gives you a way to walk the road feeling a bit less alone.

If you can’t find a supportive friend, or even if you can, online support groups, such as those offered by CancerCare are available that provide support for caregivers of people living with terminal illnesses.

Spend Time together

We often hear people talk about how difficult it is to spend time with their loved one who is dying. They don’t want to remember their loved one the way they are now but instead want to remember how they were before they were dying. That said, spending time is important not only for the person dying but for close loved ones as well. Avoiding visiting with a dying loved one can often lead to regret later on.

Think of meaningful ways to spend time together. One activity that some have found meaningful is to pull out boxes and albums of old photos. The laughter and tears of reminiscing can be very cleansing. For a woman, you may ask her to pull out her jewelry and talk about the stories behind each piece. If you have young children, or even if you don't, you may wish to make video recordings as your loved one shares stories about what it was like to grow up before email and cell phones.

Another activity some people have found special is to find an inexpensive paraffin bath and soak and then massage their loved ones hands and feet. This can do double duty in both reducing pain and stiffness due to arthritis and providing needed touch. You may also wish to find some of her favorite old novels to read to her out loud. If your loved one loved to fish, ask him to share his favorite "big fish" stories. The list could go on and on.

Everyone is different when it comes to what may be meaningful and it’s not the activities that you choose that are important. It’s spending time, even if that time is in silence.

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

If you're nervous about visiting your loved one, take a moment to learn about talking to a dying loved one. Finally, many people fear that they will break down and make their loved one's grief even more difficult. Keep in the mind that most of the time your loved one would prefer to have you visit, even if you totally lose it. Tears are OK. If you still feel anxious, especially if your loved one wishes to talk about her death, take a moment to think about and face your own fears. It may be that you are not wanting to upset your loved one by having the discussion, when not having the discussion is what would be most upsetting to her.

Remember the Children

Children also experience anticipatory grief, and while it’s just as important for children to work through grief, they are often given less opportunity than adults to express themselves, even in most hospice settings.

Studies have shown that children who are not given the opportunity to grieve are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression later on in life.

Children need to be included and need a safe place to express themselves emotionally. If it is a parent or grandparent who is dying, choosing someone other than a parent or grandparent may be helpful as children may try to be strong for the one who is dying or their spouse.

There are several grief myths about children and teens, including the myth that children are don't feel an impending loss as deeply. In one study it was noted that parents with advanced cancer were not aware of how deeply distressed their children were. On a more positive note, however, the same study found that children with a parent with advanced cancer valued family members and the important things in life much more than those children who did not have a parent with cancer.

Open communication surrounding death has been shown to help decrease anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems in children who have a parent who is seriously ill. Children need the reassurance that they will be cared for after the death and that they won’t be abandoned.

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

Consider Journaling

Many people find that keeping a journal is very healing. Keeping a journal can be cathartic on one hand, as you express even things you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with a friend. On the other, it can be a place to record special thoughts around the time of your loved one’s death—thoughts that you may later wish you had recorded. Some people prefer a private journal. Others may opt to share their thoughts on a site such as CaringBridge, where they can share not only their thoughts and feelings but updates and requests for help from loved ones.

Instead of, or in addition to, journaling, some people find that writing letters help with the sorrow of an impending death. For example, you could write a letter to your dying loved one saying everything you want to make sure you would say. If you are dying, writing letters to your children—perhaps letters they can open at a later date—provides a place to express those tender emotions and at the same time grant those who remain behind a tremendous gift. 

Consider a Retreat

The organization Inheritance of Hope now offers Legacy Retreats for young families facing the death of a parent. For those who apply and qualify, they provide all-expense-paid trips for families with children under the age of 18 who are facing a terminal diagnosis. The purpose is to help families form lifelong memories while receiving the tools they need to cope with a parent's terminal diagnosis.

Take Advantage of Holistic Methods of Coping

Adopting a holistic approach may be helpful both for the patient dying and for her loved ones. Several of these therapies have been found to help with emotions such as anxiety, and a few small studies have found that adopting a holistic approach to caring for those who are grieving has helped to bring hope and healing to a painful experience. Some of these practices include:

Nurture Your Spirituality

Spirituality is important for both those who are dying and for their caregivers. Spirituality may take the form of organized religion and prayer, meditation, communing with nature, or even listening to music that is meaningful to you. Studies have shown that people who are dying experience a better quality of life in the last days if they have an active spiritual life, and that spiritual life has benefits for more than the person dying. Caregivers of people who are dying also appear to experience less depression if their dying loved one has an active spiritual life.

What is good for the person dying appears to be even more important to their loved ones. According to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, spirituality among caregivers (family and friends) of those who are dying is associated with a better quality of life and a lower risk of disease and death.

Maintain a Sense of Humor

There’s not a lot of room for comedy when someone is dying, and there is clearly a time for sorrow. But sometimes humor, in the right setting, can be healing. In fact, a recent review of the literature published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care states that the benefit of humor in the end-of-life setting is unquestionable; with benefits for the patient and loved ones alike.

It may take some brainstorming to bring humor to your loved one's bedside. While humor is beneficial in many ways, it's important not to trivialize your loved one's situation (don't make jokes about pain) or to get her laughing to hard if she has sore ribs or belly pain. One woman who was dying from cancer asked her family and friends to send her funny emails and memes. Others may enjoy comedies on the screen. You may even wish to google "dying jokes" for more ideas. One of our favorites follows (but keep in mind that there is a time and place for jokes like these, and not everyone who is dying would appreciate this joke).

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 are now offering laughter therapy for people with advanced cancer. Yes, there are many times when laughter just won’t do it. But on occasion, even if you have to "fake it till you make it," laughter may lighten up a heavy mood.

Practice Forgiveness

Forgiveness is healing, and learning to forgive yourself is just as important as forgiving others. The time before death is filled with emotions and anger and resentment among family members can reign strong. But this is also a time to resolve differences. A good first step in forgiveness is listening. So often people are ultimately saying the same thing, just in different ways. Yet sometimes there are clear differences. A question you can ask yourself if you are irritated with another family member is, “is it more important to love or to be right?” Someone once said that resentment is a poison you prepare for another and drink yourself. To let go of resentment and hurts from the past is freeing. Give yourself the gift of forgiveness.​

Give Your Loved One Permission to Die

It’s not uncommon for someone to hang on until some specific time, for example, waiting until they hit a date such as the graduation of a child, a birthday, or a visit from a loved one. For some people, it appears as if they finally allow themselves to take their last breath after a loved one says goodbye in some way, and in doing so, grants permission. Permission to die can go both ways. The night my grandmother died she said to me, "we’ll miss each other." Her words gave me permission to let her go, and in turn, my response indicating that I would be okay gave her permission to pass on to the next place. The gift of goodbye can be a beautiful gift.

A Word From Verywell

Talking about anticipatory grief and ways of coping can be draining. Though the tips above might help ease some of the pain, the grief is something that each of has to pass through in our own way and in our 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.

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Article Sources

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  2. Kennedy, V., and M. Lloyd-Williams. How Children Cope When a Parent Has Advanced Cancer. Pscyhooncology. 2009. 18(8):886-92. doi:10.1002/pon.1455

  3. Balducci, L. Geriatric Oncology, Spirituality, and Palliative Care. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 2019. 57(1):171-175.


  4. Pinna, M., Mahtani-Chugani, V., Sanchez Correas, M., and S. Rubiales. The Use of Humor in Palliative Care: A Systematic Literature Review. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. 2018. 35(10):1342-1354. doi:10.1177/109909118764414