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What is anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief refers to the feelings of sadness, loss, and emotional turmoil that people may experience before an anticipated loss, such as the death of a loved one. It is a normal and natural response to an anticipated loss and can be an intense and difficult experience. People who are experiencing anticipatory grief may find themselves grieving even before the loss has occurred. They may also find themselves struggling with difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and hopelessness. Anticipatory grief can be experienced by both the person who is dying and their loved ones. It can be a difficult and confusing experience, as it is grief before the loss has occurred.

Symptoms of anticipatory grief can include:

  • depression and anxiety
  • feeling hopeless
  • feeling like a sense of helplessness
  • physical symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disorders, changes in appetite
  • withdrawing from social interactions,
  • Intense thoughts and emotions about the future loss.

Anticipatory grief is a normal and natural response to an anticipated loss, and there are ways to cope with these feelings, such as seeking support from loved ones, talking to a therapist, and participating in activities that bring comfort and joy. It can be helpful to have open and honest conversations about the loved one's illness and what to expect as the end of life approaches.

Here are some more ways that a family can prepare for the death of a loved one together:

  1. Talking about the loved one's illness and prognosis: Having open and honest conversations about the loved one's illness and what to expect as the end of life approaches can help families understand the situation and begin to prepare emotionally for the loss. It can also be beneficial for the patient themselves to have those conversations, providing them with the opportunity to express their needs and wishes.
  2. Making end-of-life arrangements: Together, families can plan for the funeral or memorial service, arrange for a burial or cremation, and make other end-of-life arrangements. This can include deciding on music, readings, or other elements of the service, and providing guidance to those who will be officiating. It also can be helpful to make advanced care plan, which can specify the kind of medical treatment that the person wants, or doesn't want, in certain circumstances.
  3. Creating a memory book or memory box: Families can create a memory book or memory box to share memories, photographs, and other mementos of their loved one. This can help to create a sense of continuity and a way to remember the loved one after they have died, and provide a way for future generations to know and remember them.
  4. Writing letters or making videos: some families choose to record their last message, goodbye or wish to the deceased, this can be done via video or letter, it can help to express feelings, even when it's hard to find the right words, and it can also provide an opportunity to say things that might be left unsaid.
  5. Saying goodbye: As the end of life approaches, families may choose to spend time with their loved one, say goodbye, and express their love and appreciation for them. This can be an important part of the grieving process and can provide closure for the loved one as well as the family.
  6. Planning for life after death: after a death, families need to take care of logistic tasks, like dealing with personal properties and assets, inform legal entities of the change, and make administrative arrangements. It can be helpful to have a plan in place for who will take care of these tasks, and to have a clear understanding of the loved one's wishes regarding their property and assets.
  7. Seeking professional help: Families may also find it helpful to seek support from a counselor, therapist, or other professional who can provide guidance and support during this difficult time. This can be especially beneficial for those who are having difficulty coping with the loss, or those who need assistance with the practical and administrative aspects of preparing for a death.

Every family, and every person is unique, and the way a family prepare for death, will vary depending on their individual circumstances, culture, and beliefs. It's important for families to respect each other's feelings, and to work together to find ways to prepare for the loss that feel meaningful and beneficial for everyone.

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Breena Fain
Breena Fain

Breena is a writer, certified death doula, and co-founder at Addio based in San Francisco. She leads Addio's content efforts and helps families navigate their end-of-life plan. In her free time, you can find her at the piano, on the beach with her dog, eating her weight in sourdough bread, and volunteering at a local SF hospice facility. (She's also who runs all our social media accounts so be sure to say hello!)

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