There are many ways to experience grief, including mourning someone or something before you actually lost it. This is called anticipatory grief and is not as well known to the general public as other forms of grief.
“This type of grief is common when people begin to feel sad and lost about something they know or believe is about to happen,” says psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of the book. Family Fit: find balance in life. He explains that one common example of anticipatory grief is mourning the loss of a loved one with a terminal illness while they are still alive. Anticipatory grief is “a coping mechanism to prepare for loss,” Mayer says.
Given that most people don’t realize that anticipatory grief even exists, it’s understandable that they have questions about it, including what anticipatory grief looks like and when to deal with it. Here’s what you need to know.
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What are the stages of anticipatory grief?
It is important to note that everyone mourns differently. And while doing so, you may not necessarily go through the stages of anticipatory grief, or you may experience them differently than others, says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host. Mind in sight podcast.
However, according to Mayer, you can go through these stages with grief ahead:
- Recognition of potential loss
- Acceptance of potential loss
- Attempt to solve the problem of potential loss (i.e. determine what you will do when the loss actually occurs)
- Closing and feeling like your problem-solving plan is ready and will work for you
In general, “anticipatory grief is often associated with feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear as the person becomes aware of what will change after the loss,” says Arianna Galliger, associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio State University. Wexner Medical Center. “People often feel uncomfortable when they imagine their life is changing.”
What are common thoughts during anticipatory grief?
Gallicher says these are common thoughts you might have when you’re going through pre-emptive grief:
- How will I behave after losing?
- What should I do?
- I can never ____ again.
- How can this happen?
- It’s not fair.
- It will be too difficult; I can’t handle.
How to deal with preemptive grief
Gallicher says it’s important to “allow yourself to experience those emotions in real time.” She also suggests that you create a good support system so that when a loss does occur, you have people you can rely on for help.
“It’s important to remind yourself that you’ll get over the loss when you get there,” Galliher says. “You can’t ‘pre-mourn’.
Gallicher suggests that you do everything you can to “interrupt” obsessive, obsessive thoughts about the future. That is, try to stop yourself and think about something else when you start obsessively thinking about what life will be like after your loss.
“While it’s important to acknowledge that things are changing and create space to move through the feelings you may have about those changes, it’s useless to stay ingrained in those thoughts and feelings for an extended period of time,” Galliher explains. “Some people find it useful to set aside a discrete amount of time at various intervals to consider the “what if” associated with expected losses. Once the allotted time is up, it’s time to turn your attention to other things.”
Gallicher recommends doing everything you can to stay in touch. “Worrying about what’s next won’t change the process, so it’s important to acknowledge the fear and then work to refocus on the here and now,” she says. “Intentionally spending time with your loved one while they’re still around is also an important component of coping.”
When to Seek Help for Preemptive Grief
Gallicher recommends seeking help with anticipatory grief when you realize you’re experiencing it and helping yourself prepare for what’s to come. “You don’t want to have a loss that you knew you had and then struggled to cope with,” she says. “Get into therapy now because these emotions will continue to affect you.”
But Gallicher suggests seeking help as soon as possible if you find yourself so preoccupied with the anticipation of grief that you find it difficult to focus on the present. “Counseling can help you find a way to shift your focus to ways that are helpful and effective,” she says.
Corine Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends. Her work appears in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, etc. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives on the beach, and hopes to one day have a pig and a taco truck.
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