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How to Handle Feelings of Grief that Hit When You're Expecting a Loss

By Ashley Broadwater
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
July 19, 2023

The aftermath of losing someone or something you care about is hard. You may feel angry, depressed, or in denial, among other emotions. When these feelings occur before a loss happens it's called anticipatory grief, and it can strike as we brace for bad news.

“Anticipatory grief is the grief we feel before an event takes place,” says Hope Weiss, a licensed therapist and certified grief informed professional in Longmont, Colorado. “We anticipate the loss before the loss has occurred.”

According to Chase Cassine, a New Orleans-based licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss it can start anywhere from days to months before the loss occurs.

What Can Set Off Anticipatory Grief?

A variety of experiences can cause anticipatory grief to pop up, says Weiss. A parent who’s preparing for their child to move out, an adult child taking care of an aging parent, or someone whose loved one is terminally ill may all experience anticipatory grief, for example.

Grief about these situations and others is all very understandable and can be healthy, Weiss says. “While it may prepare us in some ways for the upcoming loss, we will often still feel some grief when the actual loss takes place,” she adds.

Is Anticipatory Grief Unhealthy?

While it can help prepare us for loss, this grief can become destructive “when we're so focused on the future loss that we miss out on our current lives,” Weiss says. She encourages people to acknowledge their grief while also enjoying the gifts of the present, whether that’s the time you have now with the person, your other loved ones, or something else that makes you feel good.

At the same time, feeling those tough emotions is crucial, too. “If these feelings are suppressed and not addressed, they can become destructive,” Cassine says. A 2019 study suggests that suppressing your emotions can lead to suppressed immunity, anxiety, and more.

That means it’s important to feel anticipatory grief when it arises, but also to manage it properly so it doesn’t consume you.

How to Manage Anticipatory Grief

Here are three tips on how to handle your grief in healthy and helpful ways.

Share Your Feelings with Others

“We're not meant to experience grief alone,” Weiss says. She encourages talking about your emotions and experiences with trusted friends, family members, therapists, or people on online grief forums. If you choose to talk about your grief with others, find someone who is supportive of your own process. Grief, including how we express it to others, can vary based on a person’s culture and beliefs—and there’s no one right way to grieve.

Journal Your Thoughts

If you feel unable to talk out loud about your pain, consider putting your thoughts down on paper. “Journaling is also beneficial to provide a space to process and self-reflect…[and] to write about how you feel when verbalizing it may be difficult,” Cassine says.

Try to Stay in the Present

Weiss recommends focusing on how you can connect with people who are in your life right now, and what kinds of memories you want to create. “Asking ourselves these questions may help us create something meaningful in our current lives that will continue to be memorable after we have experienced this future loss,” she says.

Gather Information

Educating yourself about what’s to come—for instance, the symptoms, side effects, or outlook that are expected related to a family members’ illness—can help you prepare. Arming yourself with information about what to expect can help keep you grounded in realistic expectations rather than letting potential anxiety and uncertainty snowball. This may make grief easier to manage.

Ultimately, grief at any point is hard. But allowing yourself to feel and express your emotions and leaning on the support of loved ones can make the experience more bearable. If managing your grief feels challenging, consider seeking help from a mental health professional who can support you.

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