Anticipatory Grief Can Help You Find Your True Self

I taught school for a dozen years and loved every one of them. But the day came when I realized I had done everything I could with my job and had no more to give. To keep myself creative, I started writing articles for educational magazines and several were published. The idea of becoming a writer intrigued me, so I gave the school several months notice and quit my job to pursue this new career.

Quitting teaching was a hard decision — a grieving decision — and every time I drove past the school, tears welled up in my eyes. Now I understand that I was going through anticipatory grief, a feeling of loss before a death or dreaded event occurs. One career had ended and the other was uncertain. Though some may not identify it, everyone goes though anticipatory grief.

You may have feelings of loss long before your child leaves for college. An impending divorce may cause emotional upheaval and grief. A job transfer to another city may cause you to grieve for the home and community you have come to love. Anticipatory grief is powerful, so powerful it can literally change your life. What are the symptoms?

Denial is one of them. Even if you sense you are grieving, you may push sad thoughts to the back of your mind. Nervousness is another symptoms and you are on constant alert. This nervousness may develop into anxiety and dread. Long-term anticipatory grief can lead to crying spells, mood swings, anger and depression.

Anticipatory grief does not arrive at the door like an isolated package. While you are grieving, you may also be dealing with a variety of issues, such as getting ready to move. No wonder you are forgetful. Because you are swamped, you may eat on the run or snack instead of eating balanced meals. Sleep problems keep you awake at night and your days may become a study in fatigue.

Anticipatory grief differs from post-death grief in several ways. One difference is the inability to predict when it will end. Another difference is the mixture of sorrow and hope. You feel sorrow, yet continue to hope things will turn out all right.

Meghan O’Rouke writes about “The True Nature of Mourning” in an April, 2009 issue of “The Week.” As common as grief is, O’Rouke notes that it is difficult to confront it. In a culture that tends to hide grief and lacks mourning rituals, she says, “We want to achieve emotional recovery.” Fortunately, there are things you can do to help yourself.

Be alert to the symptoms of anticipatory grief. Eat balanced meals and go to bed at the same time each night. Whether they are spoken or written, express your feelings with words. Share your feelings with a trusted relative or friend. Slowly, step-by-step, work on building your healing path.

Painful as it is, anticipatory grief helps you to discover your true self. Indeed, you may evolve into a new person, someone you did not know before and want to know better now. You are a work in progress and so is anticipatory grief.

Copyright 2009 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • I never looked at grief from the anticipatory angle, so I enjoyed reading your article from that perspective

  • Hi Sanjay,

    Thanks for reading the article. Anticipatory grief is complex and powerful. Lois Krahn, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, and co-author of our book, Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, says anticipatory grief walks into her office every day. Anyone who is caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, goes through anticipatory grief.

    Harriet