How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief

Man with Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is the name given to the mix of emotions experienced when we are living with the expectation of a personal loss and grieving because of it. Anticipatory grief is particularly relevant to anyone who has received a terminal medical diagnosis and for people who love and care for that person.

Unfortunately, we know this is much too common when it comes to mesothelioma.

A terminal diagnosis changes the very structure of our existence. It takes away our control and our ability to hope and plan for the future.

When someone we love has a terminal illness, we become painfully aware of the fragility of life and may even fear for our own mortality.

Living in the expectation of death causes us to experience many of the symptoms and emotions of the grief that comes when a loved one actually does die, including:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Physical and emotional pain
  • Helplessness
  • Sorrow

Depression is another common reaction, as are changes in eating, sleeping and bowel habits.

Prognosis Changes How You Feel

Prognosis increases our turmoil. It is inevitable that we will being to count down the days to the estimated time of demise and see the dawn of each day as bringing us closer to it.

Some may feel surreal or an inability to fit back into the pattern of life prior to diagnosis. This is often intensified by the reaction of friends and acquaintances who, while dealing with their own shock and dismay at the news and not knowing what to do or say, may avoid you.

Death is a natural part of life, yet the truth is that accepting it can be hard. It may be some time before we can truly accept that our loved one is dying. During that acceptance period, we may experience alternate periods of acceptance and denial.

Often, necessity brings about acceptance for the caregiver, who needs to make decisions regarding the best options available for the care of their loved ones.

Your sick loved one, however, may choose not to accept the prognosis. It is important for the caregiver to recognize and support their need to live with the hope of remission or a cure. Often, hope is also paramount to quality of life for your loved one. In fact, it may contribute to their longer survival.

Whether we are grieving in expectation of a loved one’s death or after a loved one’s passing, there is a real need to talk to someone about the roller coaster of emotions we experience. This is not always easy to do.

Why? There are a number of reasons, which may include:

  • Trying to remain strong for the patient
  • Trying to remain strong for the children
  • Trying to put on a brave face for other family members and friends

Take Advantage of Grief Counseling

Grief counseling is readily available. Take advantage of it. Many people resist counseling in the belief that no one could possibly understand what they are feeling, nor do anything about it.

On this I write from personal experience. Because of my husband’s terminal diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma, I initially had these feelings of anticipatory grief, and it was with some trepidation that I went to my first counseling session.

Upon hearing my story, the counselor cried, further strengthening my opinion that she could not possibly help me. I was mistaken.

After a few visits, I began to see the benefit of these sessions and looked forward to seeing her each week. It was with her that, for a short time at least, I could stop acting as if everything was OK when in fact nothing was OK. It was with her that I could take off my brave face and let down my defenses.

One issue about counseling is that it may not always be available when you need it the most. Schedules can conflict.

This is why I highly recommend keeping a personal diary. During the two years of my husband’s terminal illness, my diary was without a doubt my strongest coping tool. I wrote in it daily, often in the form of poetry, pouring my anger, my fear and my heartache on to the pages.

Periodically, I read back over what I had written and came to know myself very well. Eventually I could see my strength coming through, and this helped me to overcome my anticipatory grief.

Excerpts and poems from my diary formed a major part of my book “Lean on Me: Cancer through a Carer’s Eyes”.

Do you have a question for me? Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook.


Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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