Anticipatory grief - when someone you love is seriously ill

Anticipatory grief is a range of feelings and responses experienced when you know there will be the death of a loved one, but it has not yet happened. You cannot help but think about the future, imagining how life will be without that person, and the grief that such a loss will bring. It is to watch, help, care for and generally be around a person, whilst being fully aware, that no matter what you do, or how much help and support is provided, death will be the inevitable ending.

Periods of anticipatory grief typically involve a great many demands on time and energy. There are conflicting needs of the self and others; feeling stretched to breaking point, but needing to carry on, as there is no way of knowing how long this may go on for and you cannot put the rest of your life on ‘freeze’ indefinitely. Even something as simple as taking time off work may be complicated, as who knows if you will need more time off in a few weeks or months. It is living in a state of uncertainty, which places many restrictions on your life and the lives of those around you. Planning a holiday for example, is suddenly a stressful and complex issue, as others may want to travel to far flung lands, but you want to be no more than an hour’s drive from the hospital.

Anticipatory grief includes the distress and pain felt when witnessing the suffering and deterioration of someone you love. Some days, you simply need to sob, vent or seek support, just to keep going. Typically, anticipatory grief includes periods of ‘coping’ or just numbness, so that normal life can continue, before another deterioration or health crisis causes a new wave of grief.

Anticipatory grief is also about the changes in relationship, because as deterioration occurs, the nature and dynamics of relationships change. The person who was always your ‘rock’ or full of interest in your life, may now be forgetful, uninterested or distracted and each loss of connection, communication and contact can really hurt. For those involved in the care of a seriously ill or dying person, this is a period of confusion, anxiety and continual adjustment to a new ‘normal’. Whether it is a physical illness, age-related or mental deterioration, differences in the way you can relate to that person become part of your sorrow and loss.

This period may also be an emotional roller coaster and there needs to be at least some time to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally and that could mean anything from going to the gym, spending time with friends, seeking professional support, or just flopping on the couch and watching something funny on the TV. If you can accept and understand that, you can help yourself cope with it.

However, there are some positive aspects to this gift of time, as it offers the opportunity to resolve any regrets you may have with or about your loved one. You can take time to have those important conversations. It prepares both you and your loved one for the end of life. You can make the best out of each moment you spend with your loved one, and focus on the positives, such as simple acts of kindness, the importance of just being there for them and settling affairs.

Above all, and what is so important to remember, is that anticipatory grief is a normal human response to a painful, stressful and often prolonged situation. This phase of your life will pass and after a period of grieving, you will be able to focus on your life again and the lives of those around you, in whatever way is right for you. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Wigan, Lancashire, WN6

Written by Ellen Daly

Wigan, Lancashire, WN6

Ellen is an experienced counsellor, with a busy private practice based in the North West of England. She has worked with loss, bereavement and the grief process, for twenty years. Her background, prior to counselling was in teaching and she then taught counselling for ten years, also running professional development workshops for counsellors.

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