Waiting for Lift Off: Anticipatory Grief

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You’ve finished your training, years of preparation and you’re ready for your first flight into space. Strapped into a space shuttle, waiting for lift off, you’re staring at a control panel full of buttons that you were taught to use, you know what they do and how they work. You hear the countdown and fear takes over, the idea of being launched into outer space overwhelms you. Although you’ve been preparing for this for some time it feels like none of the preparation mattered or will help you when you’re in space. What will you miss? How will life be different while you’re there and when you return? How will YOU be different after this experience? How will you use all of the preparation you’ve had to assist you in navigating space?  This is a lot like what anticipatory grief can feel like, having the certainty of knowing what’s next while simultaneously experiencing the uncertainty of literally everything else.

Much of grief is currently understood as what we experience after a loss but anticipatory grief is also a piece of the larger grief puzzle. Anticipatory grief is what happens when we know there is a possibility or a likelihood of an upcoming loss. Many of the same emotions come up with anticipatory grief as with other grief experience such as anger, sadness, isolation, fear, guilt, anxiety and it can be confusing when we experience this before a loss. Although it isn’t often acknowledged or discussed anticipatory grief is normal and healthy; it allows us to process the idea and the understanding that we will experience a loss in our life space even if we are unsure about when that will happen. The acknowledgment of the future loss and the thoughts/emotions that come before the loss can be a scary and powerful experience.

So here are 5 things to be aware of when it comes to anticipatory grief:The

Feelings of guilt are normal: Anticipatory grief can create feelings of guilt, that we are in some way betraying our loved one by considering or thinking about their death before it’s happened. This is in no way a betrayal of your loved one, this process is a normal and sometimes a necessary one. Being realistic and accepting of possible outcomes can help you in your grief process. You don’t have to choose between acceptance and support, you can do both. Continue doing the things you feel necessary for you and your relationship with your loved one while also maintaining a realistic outlook if this is comfortable for you.

Caregivers especially are susceptible to anticipatory grief: Care givers lives will change so drastically when their loss occurs. Care giving is often a full time job unless you have the financial means or man power of support to help. Many people quit their jobs in order to take care of a loved one or someone in need in their life space. When we lose someone that we have been providing care for, the entire dynamic and structure of our lives is re-arranged. The amount of questions that come up for us can be endless. What will I do if I’m not care giving? What will my life look like without this person? How will I be able to relate to others after being isolated or only interacting in a caregivers role?

Feelings of comfort or relief are also normal: As humans we like certainty and we like preparation and anticipatory grief can give us a sense of comfort and control. No matter how much love we have for the person we are caring for sometimes the idea that they will no longer be in pain/suffering or the idea that the care giver will have a break can provide a sense of relief. Guilt can follow this thought process pretty quickly, if you are finding it difficult to challenge these feelings of guilt with compassion towards yourself reach out for support from a professional or the grief community.

Anxiety will come and go: While we have the certainty of a loss, the uncertainty of everything else can create a lot of fear and anxiety.  This is normal and sometimes necessary. The watching and waiting can and will take a toll on anyone who is sitting in the knowledge that eventually the loss will happen. This can place us in a state of fight or flight or hyperalterness, it is important to utilize coping skills that are available to you such as exercise, meditation, reading for pleasure or other activities that help your parasympathetic nervous kick in and take you out of fight/flight mode for even just a short time.

You’ll still experience grief after your loss: Anticipatory grief doesn’t mean it will make our process of grieving after our loss any less painful or any easier but may be helpful for us in the short and long term, anticipatory grief is just as individual as other forms of grief. Anticipatory grief may be helpful in identifying healthy ways we can cope with our loss before it happens. Anticipatory grief may also allow us the space to reflect on our relationship with our loved one while they are still physically present even if they may not be able to participate in that reflection with us.

There is so much more to anticipatory grief than just these five bullet points and I hope to elaborate on this more in future posts. As a starting point though, normalizing our emotions and experiences within the grief process is such an important piece of coping. I hope this shed some light on anticipatory grief and hopefully this is something that will be discussed more often. There are books and other articles related to anticipatory grief you can find on the internet, if you are having trouble with this I encourage you to continue reading and educating yourself so we can continue our journey to normalize and destigmatize grief. Thanks for reading and grieve on!

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