Gina Moffa, LCSW, licensed grief and trauma therapist and author of forthcoming book Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss, explains that anticipatory grief is grief that is experienced when a loss is expected, before the actual loss occurs. “We know that, over time, we will lose them, so we preemptively feel the loss and grief,” she says. This is particularly common for people whose loved ones receive a terminal health diagnosis (such as end-stage cancer).
Moffa adds that people can also experience anticipated grief with loss of health other than death, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or a diagnosis that leads to decreased mobility or participation in daily activities. Anticipated grief can also accompany other losses, such as the loss of future identities, routines, experiences, possibilities, or an imagined future. For example, a person may feel anticipated grief about his imagined future as a parent if he receives a diagnosis of infertility. “Any change that could lead to a disruption or complete stop in a way of life is something to be regretted and can be regretted in advance as well,” she says.
Holly Strelzik, death doula, bereavement specialist, and founder of Center for the Heart, adds that people can also experience early grief with a dying pet, when dealing with birth issues (womb complications, IVF, or adoption), as well as when going through major life changes, such as moving, leaving a job, or changing relationships.
“Each individual experiences grief in their own time frame.” —Holly Strelzik, death doula and founder, Center for the Heart
Although the circumstances surrounding early grief may differ from grief after death, the emotional experience of both is quite similar. Moffa says that for some people, grieving in advance can help them prepare in advance for the void that grief can create, but the emotional and physical symptoms can be just as overwhelming and painful to bear. “(Anticipatory grief symptoms) can range from emotions like sadness, confusion, anger, denial, depression, anxiety, fear, or even numbness,” she says. “This can also be accompanied by full-body experiences such as headaches, stomach aches, increased or decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, sexual disturbances, and many more.”
Moffa says that experiencing grief early doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll mourn your loved one less after they’re gone. In some cases of anticipated bereavement, he says, caregivers of the terminally ill become closer to their loved one, making the grief they feel after that person’s death feel even more intense.
It’s also important to remember that with any form of grief, don’t expect it to follow a particular timeline. “Each individual experiences grief in their own time frame,” says Strelzik. “Even if his loved one has been declining for a long period of time, there is no real preparation for mourning after the actual death.” Also, don’t get sucked into the popular concept of the five “phases” of grief. It is often cyclical, with ebbs and flows depending on other things going on in your life.
What’s unique about early grief is that it happens while you’re still in the process of losing someone or something, whether it’s watching your grandmother with Alzheimer’s deteriorate before your eyes while you care for her, or scheduling appointments to have a D&C for your miscarriage. This can make it difficult to make space to feel these feelings, especially if you are in the role of caretaker for the person whose loss you are anticipating. But it’s important to honor your anticipated grief rather than permanently repress it. Moffa and Strelzik share their tips for coping with this unique form of loss below.
3 Ways to Help You Start Coping With Early Grief
1. Take care of yourself
Although grief can be overwhelming and overwhelming, both experts stress the importance of taking care of your mind, body, and spirit during this time. In other words, put self-care at the forefront as much as possible. Moffa says that includes nourishing your body with good food, drinking plenty of water, getting rest, and incorporating light movement into your days. Strelzik also points to being in nature, connecting with your pets or other animals, taking warm baths, and creating some quiet time alone to listen to soothing music as great forms of self-care when experiencing early grief.
Getting enough sleep is also vital. “Without (sleep), you’re at high risk of damaging other important relationships, developing burnout, and ruining your own health, which won’t benefit anyone,” says Strelzik.
2. Feel your feelings
Regardless of what you’re feeling, Strelzik says it’s normal and natural, and it’s important to allow yourself to feel all the emotions that may arise. Moffa recommends finding a safe place and a way to express those emotions, such as journaling, which she says can be a powerful therapeutic tool to help you process her feelings and experiences. She can also “schedule” time to grieve for herself by setting aside 15 minutes a day to release her emotions in a safe space. The most important thing, she adds, is not to numb your feelings with things like alcohol or drugs.
3. Lean on your support system
Finally, remember that you don’t have to face the anticipated duel alone (or any duel, for that matter). This is the time to lean on your support system, whether it includes trusted friends, family members, or a professional therapist. “There’s no shame in reaching out for help, even if someone doesn’t feel like it’s an acceptable time to feel pain or feel like they’re going to be judged,” Moffa says. “Your grief experience is valid, whether it is before a loss, during or after experiencing a loss.”
In addition to seeking support from loved ones, Strelzik suggests finding a support group where you feel safe to express your true feelings. Talking with others who are going through or have gone through what you are going through can be a great comfort to you during this time. You may find such groups offered through a therapist’s office, through local religious groups, or through organizations like GriefHaven or Center for the Heart.
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