When Tomorrow Hurts Today: Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Medically reviewed by: Rachel Hughitt, MS
Wednesday, July 19 2023

Learning that a loved one is about to pass can be devastating, and the news of an impending loss is followed by something called anticipatory grief.

When a family member or other loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, coming to terms with their impending death and coping with feelings of grief is a natural part of the grieving process. However, that doesn't make anticipatory grieving any easier to work through.

While it's common for someone facing the loss of a loved one to focus only on the needs of the dying person, self-care and looking after your own well-being are just as important. 

To help you maintain your mental health during this difficult journey, we’ll explore anticipatory grieving and how therapy and grief support can help navigate these feelings.

Understanding the experience of anticipatory grief

Like post-loss or conventional grief, the anticipatory grieving process differs for everyone. However, there are still several common characteristics that define the experience:

Common emotions and reactions

Coping with anticipatory or preparatory grief starts with understanding the emotions you’re experiencing. Everyone reacts to grief and loss differently. Nevertheless, it is still important to understand the common emotions and reactions associated with anticipatory grief:

  • Sadness
  • Anger, irritability, and resentment
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fear
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Emotional numbness
  • Guilt
  • A desire to talk
  • Poor concentration/forgetfulness

It is important to watch for these common side effects of anticipatory grief when navigating an impending loss. If any of these feelings or symptoms become too severe, you may wish to consider working with a grief therapist or other qualified mental health professional.

Factors that influence anticipatory grief

Part of the reason why everyone experiences anticipatory grief differently is that there are numerous factors that can influence the experience. Your relationship with the dying person and how close you are to them is the first — and perhaps most impactful — factor that can influence anticipatory grief. Generally, the more a person means to you, the more challenging it may be to accept losing them.

The dying person's quality of life is another factor that impacts anticipatory grief. It's difficult to watch a loved one suffer, and if they have a condition that diminishes their quality of life or causes them pain, it can intensify feelings of anticipatory grief.

According to one study, other factors that can influence a caregiver's experience with anticipatory grief include their age, education, mental health, caregiving burden, coping style, and social support.

The four stages of anticipatory grief

The experience of anticipatory grief commonly occurs in four stages:

  • Accepting that death is inevitable: Denial is often the first reaction that people experience when they learn about the impending death of a loved one. This is followed by a process of gradually accepting that their death is inevitable and coming to grips with what this means.
  • Feeling concerned for the dying person: Accepting that death is inevitable commonly transitions into feelings of concern for the dying person. Being there for them and making sure that their end-of-life care keeps them as comfortable as possible often becomes a caregiver's primary concern. While this is noble and understandable, it sometimes causes caregivers to neglect their own well-being.
  • Rehearsing the death: As death approaches, family caregivers will often begin focusing on what will happen next. This includes obsessively rehearsing things such as the moment of death and saying goodbyes, funeral arrangements, and what will happen in the following days.
  • Imagining the future: Eventually, friends and family members coping with anticipatory grief will commonly begin imagining what life will be like after their loved one is gone. 

These are the common stages of anticipatory grief and the common feelings and reactions that accompany them. No matter how common or normal they might be, however, each one of these stages can still present a range of unique emotional challenges. That's why proper self-care and emotional support are vital for anyone navigating the stages of anticipatory grief.

Coping strategies for anticipatory grief

Grief is natural and is something that should be embraced rather than avoided. However, it’s still important to cope with anticipatory grief healthily.

If your anticipatory grief is negatively impacting your mental health, you may want to consider using some of these coping strategies to help you work through your experience.

Therapeutic interventions and counseling techniques

Grief therapists are mental health professionals who specialize in helping people with both post-loss and anticipatory grief. These therapists use therapeutic techniques such as talk therapy, cognitive restructuring, and emotional regulation to help people process and heal from their grief. 

Grief therapists will also commonly work to educate clients about the grieving process so that they can better understand the thoughts and emotions they’re having.

Sometimes, just having someone to talk with openly and honestly can be a big help when dealing with anticipatory grief. Grief therapists provide a safe, non-judgmental space to discuss your thoughts and work through your feelings.

If you want to meet with a licensed grief therapist, SonderMind can help you find one that matches your preferences and needs. Get matched with a counselor in as little as 48 hours.

Self-care practices for managing emotions

Self-care is a crucial part of coping with anticipatory grief. If you aren't taking proper care of your mental and physical health throughout the grieving process, negative emotions will likely be much more intense and difficult to cope with.

There are a wide variety of self-care practices that can be beneficial to someone who is experiencing anticipatory grief, including:

  • Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Keeping a journal
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Engaging in activities you enjoy
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Engaging in creative outlets like art, writing, or music

Part of what grief therapists do is help determine the self-care practices and at-home exercises that will most benefit each unique individual. From there, they’ll provide guidance on implementing these strategies outside of therapy sessions. 

Seeking support from loved ones

It's always important to seek support from close friends and family members when coping with anticipatory grief. Be honest with them about your feelings and fears. If they also know the dying person, they may have feelings and fears of their own that they would like to express as well. These conversations can be difficult sometimes, but they are often highly beneficial.

Attending support groups can be another helpful way to cope with anticipatory grief. Support groups for people coping with grief are becoming increasingly common, and they can serve as an excellent outlet for expressing your feelings and connecting with others experiencing the same challenges.

Find a grief therapist today with SonderMind

Anticipatory grief can be a huge emotional burden — but it’s not a burden you must face alone. Along with leaning on your friends and family for support, working with a grief therapist can be a helpful way to navigate the grieving process.

If you would like to find an online or in-person grief therapist, SonderMind can help. Try out SonderMind today to match with a therapist who fits your needs and start the healing process.

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