— Here, experts break down anticipatory grief, an under-talked-about and all-too-common experience of watching loved ones get older.
It can creep up on you slowly or happen in a single moment, but anticipatory grief finds its way into the lives of most adult children or caregivers at some point. And the confusing part: Most people don’t know it when it hits them. Unlike grief after loss, which gets its fair share of air time, anticipatory grief is relatively unheard of, making it difficult for folks to recognize— and process — when they’re experiencing it.
“Anticipatory grief is a process that occurs prior to an expected loss,” explains Alicea Ardito, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice with Loudoun Adult Counseling and Northern Virginia Older Adult Counseling. “Often, anticipatory grief is associated with the loss of a loved one to death, but the definition has expanded to include many other types of losses as well.” (Think: Cognitive decline.)
Whether you’re experiencing it now or want to be prepared, here’s what experts want you to know about anticipatory grief.
What is anticipatory grief?
A viral tweet about anticipatory grief sparked a recent conversation, but the concept isn’t new — or rare. “Anticipatory grief is a very common experience for caregivers and/or adult children,” says Iris Waichler, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago and author of “Role Reversal: How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.” “It references watching the physical, cognitive, behavioral and emotional changes you witness in a loved one. In a sense, you lose them twice. Once you have seen these changes over time, and the second time is at the moment of death.”
What triggers it?
While a concrete moment, such as a diagnosis or obvious cognitive or behavioral change, can set off feelings of anticipatory grief, there isn’t always one particular event that prompts it.
“Anticipatory grief can be triggered by many things,” explains Ardito. “It may be the realization that a loved one is nearing the end of their life, witnessing the process of a physical or cognitive decline or observing the progression of a life-limiting illness.”
This moment or phase then can then take you to a place where you begin to imagine life without them, Waichler notes. “It sometimes becomes an unconscious way to prepare for their death.”
What does it look like?
“Anticipatory grief involves complicated and complex feelings similar to those feelings associated with grief after a loss,” says Ardito. While each person will experience it differently, many will have some, or all, of the following feelings, according to Ardito and Waichler:
“There also may be other emotions involved, such as gratitude or acceptance,” notes Ardito.
“While there may be empathy for the parent as they decline in health, there may be residual feelings, such as anger, abandonment, confusion or frustration. Luckily, there is space for all of these feelings.”
— ALICEA ARDITO, A LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER
For Carly Nguyen, a mom of two who runs the blog Little Voice, Big Matter, anticipatory grief presented in the form of wanting to make sure she provided closure for her father before he passed. “When I accepted that there was nothing else that could be done for my father, who was dying of cancer, I felt this great sense of urgency to let him know that we would all be OK,” she explains. “I wanted to be sure I eased any burdens he might be feeling and reassure him that he had done a fine job as a parent and a husband. I felt like I needed him to leave this world with that peace of mind.”
For adult children who have a contentious relationship with their parents, anticipatory grief can be even trickier. “It is not uncommon to feel conflicted about the relationship,” notes Ardito. “While there may be empathy and compassion for the parent as they decline in health, there may be residual feelings about the relationship, such as anger, abandonment, confusion or frustration. Luckily, there is space for all of these feelings. A person does not have to choose just one way to feel.”
Contending and actively dealing with anticipatory grief is a personal process, but here are a few ways to approach these unique and often confusing feelings, according to Ardito and Waichler:
Talk it out.
According to Waichler, regardless of whom you speak to, talking about your feelings regarding the impending loss is key. “If appropriate, and the person who is dying shares a willingness to discuss their feelings about their impending death, it can create an intimacy and environment to help both parties begin to cope,” she says, adding: “Many people feel regret for not saying all they wanted to a loved one that is dying.”
If a conversation with the aging or ill person isn’t on the table, Waichler recommends finding “another outlet to discuss tumultuous feelings.” She offers the suggestions of talking to a “therapist, trusted friend or family member, an online or in-person support group or a spiritual or faith-based leader.”
The main take-away: Don’t self-isolate and be alone. Says Waichler: “People tend to do this when depressed and it only makes healing more challenging.”
Ardito notes that when a realization occurs that there may not be much time left, it’s a good time to inquire about their life (even if you already know). “It can be helpful to ask questions about family history or express interest in hearing a parent retell favorite stories,” she says.
This also was a recommendation when the topic of anticipatory grief recently came up on Twitter:
Get intentional with your time.
It sounds cliché, but it’s true: Quality is more important than quantity. “It can be very helpful to focus on the quality of time spent rather than the limited quantity of time left,” says Ardito. “Try to become fully present, even in difficult moments.”
In order to make the most of your time with a loved one, no matter how much is left, consider formulating a loose plan or general ideas. “Spend time thinking about how you want to spend your remaining time together,” Waichler suggests. “What can you do to help make this time more meaningful and bring quality and purpose to both of your lives?”
“Think along the lines of creating beautiful moments and memories together,” Waichler continues. “It may be a walk in a beautiful park, spending time in a garden, looking at photos of beloved family and friends and reminiscing or sharing favorite movies or music together.”
Set boundaries, if need be.
“Anticipatory grief can jump-start long-delayed discussions about past unresolved conflicts due to the nature of the circumstances created by impending death,” notes Waichler — but this isn’t the case for everyone, and there’s no guarantee that conversations or interactions will end on a high note.
“If your relationship with the person dying is conflictual or strained and you see no room for healing, identify another person who can step in to be the primary caregiver, if you’re serving in that role,” Waichler says. “You may need to set limits on the frequency and nature of your contacts if you see them ending in conflict. Identify tasks that can be helpful to the person, but that won’t raise conflict. Examples may be helping with meals, helping with laundry or chores or helping to coordinate a caregiving team.”
“Some people experience anger or irritability towards the person who is dying. It is important to recognize and identify the source of these feelings.”
— IRIS WAICHLER, A LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER
Accept your feelings — no matter what.
One of the most important things you can do during such a fraught time is to “acknowledge and accept your feelings, whatever they are, without self-criticism or judgment,” according to Waichler, who notes that “journaling can be a good outlet to process your feelings.”
“Some people experience anger or irritability towards the person who is dying,” notes Waichler. “This may be because you are angry they are leaving you or because of the physical and emotional demands placed on you if you’re caregiving. It is important to recognize and identify the source of these feelings.”
Take care of yourself.
While your aging parent or loved one may be your number one priority, it’s important to “engage in self-care activities during this time,” says Waichler.
“Make time for yourself to get enough sleep, eat healthy meals and exercise,” she says. “Additionally, try mindfulness activities, such as yoga, meditating or praying to gain inner strength and calm. The stronger you are physically and emotionally, the more you can engage with a loved one in meaningful ways.”
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