Anticipatory Grief – The Long Goodbye

The term anticipatory grief was first introduced by Erich Lindeman in 1944 to explain the dread and emotional preparation of families waiting for any news about their loved ones fighting in World War two.  It is a term used to describe the emotional process of mourning and preparing for the impending loss of a loved one.

This unique type of grief often occurs when an individual knows that someone they care about is dying, such as when a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness. It can be a challenging and complex experience as individuals attempt to cope with their own emotions and navigate the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

One of the main characteristics of anticipatory grief is the opportunity it provides for individuals to mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming death. It allows individuals to say their goodbyes, express their love and gratitude, and make peace with any unresolved issues. Having time to mentally and emotionally prepare can reduce the shock when the death occurs. While this may sound helpful, it can also bring about a mixture of conflicting emotions. Knowing that their loved one will eventually die can be incredibly distressing, causing feelings of deep sadness, extreme anxiety, and overwhelming helplessness.

When my son Matthew was given a very poor prognosis after his cancer diagnosis, I unconsciously started the grieving process, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Even when I knew his death was imminent, I wasn’t prepared for the moment he took his last breath. It was still a shock. Anticipatory grief did not prepare me for that moment.

I also experienced anticipatory grief with my parents, as they both unfortunately had dementia. I remember feeling really guilty for not crying when my dad died. He had been in and out of hospital for ten years with COPD – a horrible lung disease. I thought I was an awful person for not being grief stricken, but I had unknowingly done a lot of grieving over a long period of time due to his prolonged illness and dementia. It was months later that I really started to feel the sadness.

Anticipatory loss is very common but rarely talked about, although I do talk about it on my podcast. It’s important to understand and be reassured that your feelings and thoughts are normal. You may even experience relief when your loved one dies, and this may be followed by feelings of guilt. It’s important that you are listened to, heard, understood, and acknowledged. Having a grief buddy is really helpful. Someone who can listen to you without judgement.

If you are experiencing overwhelming feelings due to anticipatory grief and it is affecting your mental health, please do speak to your doctor or counsellor.

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