What is anticipatory grief?

In 2019, when her grandfather was already 93 years old, Marjorie stopped visiting his apartment. In 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, her grandfather peacefully passed away… alone.

Today, as Marjorie holds an image of her grandfather in her hand, an old photograph she’s kept in a box by her bed since she was 12, she shakes as she explains why she stopped seeing him for months before his death.

“I loved my grandpa more than anyone in the whole world,” she shares. “I spent my whole childhood at their house. You couldn’t have told me, when I was like, five, that there would be a someday without my grandpa in it.

“But as I got older, and family started gathering more at funerals than weddings, and there were more like, ‘Oh, did you hear Aunt Mary is sick?’ instead of ‘Hey! Melinda had a baby,’ I started getting really, really sad… like all of a sudden I became hyperaware of everyone’s mortality and how I would lose everybody someday.

“And that first and most important someday was my grandfather. Oh, God, I ached like you wouldn’t believe.

“I stopped visiting because I think in my head, he was already gone, and I needed to process it now before it actually happened. I thought it would hurt less.”

This is called anticipatory grief – grief that happens before death. Many people who are facing the imminent death of someone they love feel this, and they are surprised at the intensity of the sadness, which they didn’t expect until after their loved one is gone.

It is also common in people who are facing their own death.

People who experience anticipatory grief may be mourning not just one thing, but several, and it may not even be a loved one. Anticipatory grievers might grieve the impending loss of a loved one, but might also be grieving a financial situation, dreams that might never come true, or a potential new role within the family that will change their role now. One of the saddest parts of anticipatory grief is losses don’t often work alone – one grief in the present can bring back the feelings of old losses.

When a person grieves before the loss, that person may experience atypical responses to the grief, like extreme anger or loss of emotional control. Experts say this “in-between” – the dangling between hope and the knowledge that we do have to let go – is to blame for that.

Still, there is a reason and a purpose for this kind of grief. Grieving before the death can be a way for people to renew their faith, find meaning, or have the closure many people who lose without warning get. It might be a time to be able to reconcile with loved ones we’ve been challenged to love and get along with; it might be a time of forgiveness; it might mean the gift of time, however short.

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