If you’re going through anticipatory grief you’ve probably heard of “grief work.” Health professionals may use the term without explaining it. Anticipatory grief is so draining and confusing you may not have a clear picture of your grief work. What is it? How can you accomplish it?

“Grief work includes the processes that a mourner needs to complete before resuming daily processes,” according to The National Cancer Institute. This grief work includes mentally separating from the person who has died, adjusting to a different life, and forming new relationships.

Those who are going though anticipatory grief have double work. While you’re grieving for your loved one you’re helping him or her with end of life tasks: completing forms, paying medical bills, checking legal documents, finding safe deposit box keys, distributing goods, and even home repairs. You may have to make decisions for a loved one who is no longer capable of making them.

Self-care should be on your work list, according to The Alzheimer’s Association. “Building in time for self-care is crucial,” according to the Association, and you need to recognize your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. As you go about your anticipatory grief work remember to reward yourself. Take a day off. Have lunch with a friend. Buy the shirt that was on sale.

Family members can help you with your anticipatory grief work. Their involvement will not only lighten your load, it may prevent future discord. You’ll find a list of “Tasks of Anticipatory Grief for Families” on http://www.alzheimer-society.ca/grief2.htm.

Anticipatory grief work is tough stuff. Dividing this work into parts will make it easier: 1) Meeting your loved one’s needs and 2) Meeting your own needs. Just as a builder gathers materials for a construction project, you must gather materials for your anticipatory grief work. So roll up your sleeves and get going.

PREPARE YOURSELF MENTALLY. Decide how you’re going to act with your loved one. Mayo Clinic Chaplain Mary Johnson, in an article called “Interacting With a Terminally Ill Loved One,” thinks you should “let loved ones be loved ones.” Though you can’t be your loved one’s physician or counselor, you can be a good listener. Johnson says you can also “build on the strengths of the relationship that were in place before the health care crisis came about.”

LEARN ABOUT ANTICIPATORY GRIEF. Helen Fitzgerald, Training Director of the American Hospice Foundation, thinks it’s important to learn about grief “so you can identify what you are feeling and have some ideas on how to help yourself.” Hundreds of books have been written about grief, but few have been written about anticipatory grief. Check the Internet for anticipatory grief books and articles. Hospitals and hospices are also good sources of information.

FACE REALITY. Marin A. Humphrey, RN, MA, a psychiatric nurse and contributing author for “Loss & Anticipatory Grief,” by Therese Rando, PhD, says you need to face the reality of impending loss. Your reality may include saying goodbye to your loved one. “Goodbyes left unsaid, or not completed in a way that is satisfactory to the survivor, can be devastating to the grief experiences,” writes Humphrey.

BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM. This system may include health professionals, family members, friends in your religious community, and neighbors. Write their names, phone numbers, and email addresses in a small notebook and carry it with you. Put a list of these names and numbers next to the phone. Your local hospital may have bereavement support groups. Your religious community may have grief support groups as well.

SAFEGUARD DOCUMENTS. Anticipatory grief can be so stressful that you misplace things. Certainly,you don’t want to misplace medical documents, legal documents, or family papers. Keep these documents in a separate file drawer and copies of them in a safe deposit box. Your loved one may also give you written instructions for disbursing family possessions. You need to safeguard these documents as well.

MAKE ARRANGEMENTS. Your loved one may have special requests, such as which hymns to sing at the memorial service, special readings, and selected photos to display. Involve other family members in planning because they will probably have suggestions, too. Social Services may recommend prepaying funeral expenses. If you do this, file these receipts with the medical and legal documents.

THINK ABOUT A NEW LIFE. You never stop missing your loved one, according to The National Mental Health Association, but “the pain eases after a time and allows you to go on with your life.” Start to think about this life now. Donating to health organizations is one way to remember your loved one. You may purchase books about your loved one’s hobby for the public library. Some families have created patchwork quilts from their loved one’s garments.

Anticipatory grief work helps to prepare us for a new life. As Judith Viorst explains in “Necessary Losses,” loved ones who are gone still enrich our lives. Identifying with these loved ones helps us to see things more clearly. “By taking in the dead – by making them part of what we think, feel, love, want, do – we can both keep them with us and let them go.”

Copyright 2005 by Harriet Hodgson


Harriet Hodgson has been a nonfiction writer for 27 years and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief,” written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from http://www.amazon.com A five-star review of the book is also posted on Amazon.

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Harriet Hodgson

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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