Is Anticipatory Grief a Good Thing?
Is Anticipatory Grief a Good Thing?

Is Anticipatory Grief a Good Thing?

In the realm of grief, there exists a phenomenon that often goes unrecognized yet profoundly impacts individuals and communities: and that is anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is a complex emotional response to an anticipated loss, such as the impending death of a loved one or the anticipation of significant life changes. Today we’re going to dig a little deeper into the topic for greater understanding, ideas on how to cope with anticipatory grief, and of course, ways to pursue integration and healing while we explore together if this is a good thing, a bad thing, or some mysterious third thing for us to experience.

While traditionally associated with the prospect of death, anticipatory grief can manifest in various forms and contexts, disrupting our holistic selves and challenging our resilience in unexpected ways.

Anticipatory grief is a multifaceted experience characterized by a range of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that arise in anticipation of loss. Unlike what might be considered a conventional grief experience, which occurs in response to a concrete event, anticipatory grief unfolds over an extended period, preceding the actual loss. It encompasses feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, and profound uncertainty as we grapple with the impending change and the implications for our lives.

Where might you have experienced this type of grief in your life? Maybe a loved one received a terminal diagnosis. Maybe you are living with a chronic illness and are unsure of what potential limitations may impose on your future health and freedom. Similarly, impending life transitions such as retirement, relocation, or the end of a significant relationship can trigger anticipatory grief. This is the unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory of navigating the loss of familiar roles, routines, and even our identities.

In the face of anticipatory grief, some may find themselves grappling with feelings of self-blame and guilt, particularly in situations where they perceive themselves as responsible for the impending loss. Whether it be the breakdown of a relationship, the deterioration of health due to lifestyle choices, or other circumstances, some may internalize a sense of responsibility for the impending change.

This self-blame can intensify feelings of guilt and shame, complicating the grieving process and hindering the ability to find solace and acceptance. It is important for anyone experiencing anticipatory grief to recognize that assigning blame to oneself is not only unproductive but also unjustified. Grief is a natural response to loss, and it is neither fair nor accurate to attribute blame in the grief process. And I don’t mean that we need to minimize our role in the events; far from it. I simply want to invite us the recognize that if we want to practice healing and integration through this form of loss, we have to allow the guilt or shame of any perceived contribution to be met with nuance – no grief event is so black and white to say only one factor is to “blame”.

It would be really lovely if anticipatory grief had a different or lighter impact on our lives, but the truth is that just as conventional grief disrupts our holistic selves in the wake of loss, anticipatory grief exerts a profound impact on our emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being.

The prolonged nature of anticipatory grief amplifies its effects, permeating every aspect of our lives and challenging our ability to find meaning and purpose amidst uncertainty. In response to anticipatory grief, our nervous systems tend to activate a state of hypervigilance, preparing us for the moment another shoe drops. This is no good way to live.

Emotionally, anticipatory grief manifests as a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from profound sadness and despair to moments of fleeting hope and acceptance. The constant oscillation between anticipation and apprehension can leave us feeling emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed, struggling to find solace in the midst of uncertainty. People who tend to minimize their emotional expression will find great discomfort in this part of themselves, often questioning or disbelieving their own heart and what they need and feel.

Psychologically, anticipatory grief can give rise to a sense of disorientation and cognitive dissonance as we attempt to reconcile our present reality with an uncertain future. The pervasive nature of anticipatory grief can disrupt cognitive processes, impairing concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities as individuals grapple with the complexities of their emotions and circumstances. Our ability to focus shortens, both with work and our hobbies. Rumination is a common strategy, believing if we just plan enough or make enough lists, we might be able to solve the problem of our impending loss. Irrational? Yes. And yet, overthinking is often the first and only strategy we employ before breaking down.

Physically, anticipatory grief can manifest in a myriad of somatic symptoms, including fatigue, insomnia, changes in appetite, and exacerbation of pre-existing health conditions. The physiological toll of anticipatory grief further exacerbates our distress, compromising our ability to cope with the demands of daily life and maintain a sense of well-being. The hypervigilant state of our nervous systems can lead to headaches, muscle tension, and even make us more prone to injury.

Spiritually, anticipatory grief challenges us to confront existential questions about the nature of life, death, and the human experience. The existential angst inherent in anticipatory grief can provoke a crisis of faith and meaning, compelling individuals to search for deeper sources of resilience and transcendence amidst the upheaval.

And yet, in spite of all these intense experiences within anticipatory grief, I would still argue that the majority of our retrospective encounters with anticipatory grief are positive. When I asked this question on social media, the responses were fast and passionate: “Is Anticipatory Grief a Good Thing?” The majority of respondents said that in their experience, it was a positive time in their life despite knowing and carrying the weight of impending loss. Many people told stories of how that time allowed them to resolve longstanding concerns and issues, prepare their loved ones, and become fully present as often as possible. At the same time, others said the awareness of the impending loss stole their focus during important moments, layering what could become a joyful memory with a sense of impending doom.

If you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you know I love the movie Inside Out, and it’s applicable here again! The idea of our memories being able to hold both joyful and sorrowful moments is a mark of our emotional maturity. It demonstrates that we have the range to comprehend how both/and thinking can alleviate the hypervigilance and tension of trying to make the most of everything without allowing grief in the door. Grief doesn’t need us to invite it forward; it tromps through our homes like a muddy puppy coming in from a rainstorm. But we have an opportunity in that moment to choose engagement or to choose disconnection; there really isn’t a lot of space for in-between thinking, here.

But regardless of whether or not we feel it is a good thing, we can cultivate awareness of ourselves and incorporate healing practices in the face of anticipatory grief. These practices, when selected personally and in alignment with our own values, can provide essential tools and guidance for us to navigate the complexities of our big emotions and tumultuous experiences.

1 – In navigating anticipatory grief, it is essential for us to assess our personal core values and priorities as we confront difficult decisions and navigate what will come. By clarifying what matters most to us, we can make informed choices that honor our values and support our well-being, empowering us to navigate the uncertainties of anticipatory grief with integrity and authenticity.

That doesn’t mean integrity and authenticity need to be our core values in this kind of season, but it does mean that the underlying experience of our healing requires us to be true to ourselves. We will share some similarities with others, but if we want to truly support ourselves through the process, we have to put our own needs, wants, and desires at the front of the line. This lets us choose how we spend our time in anticipatory grief, right? All things with intention.

2 – I’m also a big fan of introducing a mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and body scans. They offer us a pathway to cultivate present-moment awareness and self-compassion amidst the tumult of anticipatory grief. By grounding ourselves in the here and now, we can create space to acknowledge and honor our emotions without judgment or resistance, fostering a sense of acceptance and inner peace.

And that self judgment is pervasive in these experiences. We criticize ourselves along the way, both for doing too much or too little. But if we can gain awareness of ourselves and our propensity to say that nothing we do will be good enough, then maybe we can move away from trying to do all the correct things and instead, learn what things will be right for us and our loved ones. Mindfulness practices are not for everyone, but they can be – if we allow ourselves to explore the fullness of what a mindfulness practice can entail. And hint: it’s not just clearing your thoughts to a blank slate for 45 minutes a day.

3 – And lastly, if we have done the work of bringing our core values to the conversation, then we can begin engaging in activities that align with our personal values and beliefs. This alignment provides us with a sense of purpose and meaning amidst the uncertainty of anticipatory grief. Whether it be spending quality time with loved ones, pursuing creative outlets, volunteering in the community, or participating in spiritual practices, meaningful activities can serve as anchors of resilience and sources of connection in times of transition and loss.

We just talked about doing the correct things for ourselves in grief, and finding a way to create meaning around our experiences is what allows our brains to convert those experiences into intentional and valuable long-term memories. When we recall this situation later in life, of course it will still hurt. But with intentions defined and attached, then it may also offer a bit of sweetness in the recollection, too.

Anticipatory grief is a profound and complex emotional experience that challenges us to navigate the uncertainties of impending loss with courage, resilience, and compassion. By embracing awareness and healing practices, we can cultivate resilience, find meaning amidst uncertainty, and honor our unique journey of grief and transformation. In the face of anticipatory grief, may we embrace the inherent resilience of the human spirit and journey toward healing with grace and compassion for the process.

Thank you for listening to episode 128 of Restorative Grief. So what is your conclusion? Is anticipatory grief a good experience? We can make the case for either verdict but the truth is, it’s probably too nuanced to say yes or no. And that’s the point. Like conventional grief, anticipatory grief is rife with gray space and an invitation to hold yourself with more humility and intentionality. So the next chance you get, I hope you’ll trust yourself to lean in a little closer both to yourself and others as you wade through anticipatory grief. It’s not good or bad. It just is.

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I want to thank you for making time to intentionally approach your grief. Please remember to subscribe to the show and leave a review so others in need of grief support can find us here, too. There are more episodes, transcripts, and resources available at and as I mentioned at the top of the episode, we would love for you to become a Patron of the show as well. The minimal cost of supporting a show like this means you bring grief support to care deserts and people who cannot access one-to-one help for themselves, too. And that is a beautiful thing. There are a lot of new resources available to you as a Patron that may be just the support you need in this new year for healing. Check out the show notes for more details and how to find me on social media because you know I’d love to hear from you.

And as always, one last thing before we go. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.

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