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Future Grief

Grief for coming events which have not yet happened is known as anticipatory grief. The most common example of anticipatory grief involves an illness for which the expected outcome is death rather than recovery. A diagnosis of a loved one’s Alzheimer’s disease is likely to arouse anticipatory grief. It is possible to have anticipatory grief for other kinds of events, as well, such as losing a house through bankruptcy proceedings, knowing that job is ending at a definite point in the future, planning a cross-country move in the coming months, or the initiation of a divorce. In all these cases, there is knowledge that a loss is coming in the future; it might be approaching slowly, but it is approaching inexorably. Sometimes, the date of the coming loss is known in advance. In other cases, such as in Alzheimer’s, the loss may be impending for an open-ended period of time. These open-ended coming losses may be harder as the not-knowing aspect adds an extra burden to the suffering; many people find suffering more bearable when they know there is a definite end to it.

With anticipatory grief, the person grieving is in the odd position of emotionally experiencing the expected loss while the loved one or object (job, house, etc) is still present. It creates a yo-yo effect, one minute feeling the deep sadness of the coming loss and another minute feeling appreciation and relief that the loss hasn’t happened yet. There is an always shifting flow between holding on to hope and accepting and letting go.

Some people experience the added burden of guilt with their anticipatory grief, as though their grief is admitting to hopelessness. Another source of guilt might arise when a person thinks, “I am so tired of this never-ending situation. I just want it to be over!” Anger can be another common feeling that accompanies anticipatory grief. It can seem so bitterly unfair that the vibrant parent who raised us now seems to be replaced by a stranger because of Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the grief experienced might be for the loss of the life you once had before you became a caretaker to a dying parent or spouse or before you signed the papers to sell your house, and so forth.

Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, so you may be someone who does not. And, unfortunately, the research indicates that anticipatory grief doesn’t shorten or otherwise affect the grief experienced after the loss occurs. That makes it seem unfair, somehow, as though that early suffering should somehow soften the blow of the actual loss when it happens. Unfortunately, it does not.

The book Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief by Harriet Hodgson and Dr. Lois Kahn may be of help to you. Written by a woman with a lot of caretaking experience and a woman who is a psychiatrist, this book may provide you with a path through your anticipatory grief experience.

If you believe you are experiencing anticipatory grief and would like a safe, nonjudgmental place to explore your feelings, please give me a call at 816-226-4678 or set an appointment through the client portal. Sharing your grief burdens with me may not halve the load (as that old saying goes), but it will lighten it.

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