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Anticipatory Grief

Updated: Feb 28

anticipatory grief

This blog is one of a series on grief.  Be sure to check out the other posts:  Grief thru a natural causes, Anticipatory Grieving, Complex Grieving (suicide, accidents–grouped because they’re harder get through), Ambiguous Grieving a loss when they are still alive–cutting someone out,

Secondary Grieving.  The causes can be varied.  In this series we explore the different types of grief to broaden your understanding, and offer practical help for dark days.  

What is Anticipatory Grief?

Grief is a universal experience.  While many associate grief with the aftermath of a loss, there exists a profound and often overlooked aspect known as anticipatory grieving. This form of grief is a complex emotional process that occurs when an individual grapples with the impending loss or a significant life change. Unlike the more commonly recognized grief that follows a death, anticipatory grief involves navigating the emotional terrain before the change actually takes place. It's a prelude to mourning. 

Because it happens BEFORE the loss, it often catches people off guard. They aren’t expecting it. Anticipatory grief extends its tendrils not only to the finality of death but also to the evolving landscapes of other life changes, such as divorce, retirement, or a child leaving for college, even if some of these life changes feel like they should be joyful.  Let’s consider anticipatory grief, its various manifestations, and the strategies that can ease the emotional burden of anticipating change.

Anticipating Death

Anticipatory grief takes on a poignant form when faced with the impending loss of a loved one due to terminal illness. It is an emotional prelude that unfolds as the undeniable reality of mortality looms. As the stark awareness of an imminent goodbye settles in, individuals grapple with a spectrum of emotions that traverse the realms of sadness, anxiety, and profound loss.

In this anticipatory grief, family members and friends may find themselves caught in a paradox of wanting to make the most of the remaining time while simultaneously mourning the impending absence. The emotional turbulence can be overwhelming as they witness the gradual decline of their loved one's health. This unique form of grief compels individuals to confront the complex interplay of emotions, including the sorrow of imminent separation, the helplessness in the face of an irreversible fate, and the bittersweet moments of cherishing the time that remains.

Anticipatory grief, in the context of a person dying, also provides an opportunity for crucial conversations and expressions of love. It prompts individuals to reflect on the impact the dying person has had on their lives and to create meaningful moments that transcend the inevitable goodbye. While this anticipatory journey is undeniably heart-wrenching, it serves as a tender acknowledgment of the depth of human connection and the beauty of the final chapters of life.

Anticipatory Grief and Life Changes


Divorce, as a life-altering transition, often carries with it the weight of anticipatory grief. In the midst of legal processes and the logistical intricacies of separation, individuals grapple with a spectrum of emotions that extend beyond the finalization of paperwork. The awareness of an impending end to the shared life, dreams, and daily routines gives rise to a unique form of anticipatory grief.

Anticipatory grief in divorce involves mourning not only the dissolution of the romantic partnership but also the loss of shared dreams, aspirations, the loss of a life built together. The emotional landscape is marked by a paradoxical mix of sadness, anxiety, and a profound sense of breaking apart. Individuals may find themselves grieving the loss of the identity intertwined with the role of being a spouse.

Navigating this emotionally complex terrain involves acknowledging the impending changes, allowing space for the expression of emotions, and fostering open communication. Anticipatory grief in divorce is not a linear process, and individuals may find solace in seeking support, whether through friends, family, or professional counseling. As they traverse the challenging path of dissolution, embracing self-compassion becomes a crucial aspect, allowing for the acknowledgment of the pain, healing, and the eventual emergence of a new chapter.


Retirement, a significant life milestone, often brings with it a unique form of anticipatory grief—a poignant prelude to bidding farewell to a career, routine, and the identity intertwined with professional life. As individuals approach the threshold of retirement, a spectrum of emotions unfolds, encompassing both excitement for newfound freedom and the apprehension of losing a structured, work-centric existence.  

Anticipatory grief in retirement involves navigating the emotional landscape of saying goodbye to colleagues, routines, and the professional identity that has defined a significant portion of one's life. The awareness of impending change prompts individuals to reflect on the impact of their career, the relationships forged in the workplace, and the adjustments required for a life beyond the familiar confines of the office. It is a poignant journey through the recognition that the next chapter awaits, bringing with it the challenge of reshaping daily rhythms and redefining personal purpose.

As individuals grapple with the anticipatory grief of retirement, acknowledging the myriad emotions that surface becomes paramount. Whether it's the excitement of pursuing newfound passions or the uncertainty of navigating uncharted territories, embracing the emotional complexity fosters resilience. Seeking support from peers, friends, or family offers a valuable outlet for expressing these feelings and gaining insights on how to navigate the intricacies of this transitional period. Anticipatory grief in retirement is not merely an end but a prelude to a new beginning—one that invites a reevaluation of priorities, the pursuit of unexplored passions, and the crafting of a fulfilling post-professional life.

Child Leaving for College

The journey of sending a child off to college is an emotional terrain marked by anticipatory grief—a prelude to the forthcoming adjustment in the family dynamic. As parents prepare to bid farewell to the familiar routines, shared spaces, and daily interactions, a spectrum of emotions unfolds. The excitement for their child's educational journey is often interwoven with a bittersweet sense of loss, signaling the beginning of a new chapter and the end of an era.

Anticipatory grief in the context of a child leaving for college involves mourning the changes that accompany an empty nest. Parents grapple with the awareness that the family dynamic is shifting, that the once ever-present child will now embark on a path of independence. The anticipatory journey is marked by a blend of pride in their child's accomplishments, worry about their well-being, and a poignant acknowledgment that the familial landscape will undergo a transformative shift.

Navigating this emotional landscape requires open communication, mutual understanding, and a deliberate effort to create meaningful moments before the departure. Parents may find solace in acknowledging the complex emotions, seeking support from friends or support groups, and fostering a sense of anticipation for the positive aspects of their child's newfound independence. While anticipatory grief accompanies the child's journey to college, it also sets the stage for growth, resilience, and the eventual embrace of the evolving family dynamics.

Healing During Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grieving, with its complex emotional landscape, can place a profound strain on individuals as they navigate the prelude to significant life changes. However, there are strategies and approaches that can alleviate this strain, fostering emotional well-being and resilience.

First, acknowledging and validating the range of emotions that anticipatory grief brings is a crucial step. Whether it's sadness, anxiety, or a mix of conflicting feelings, recognizing and accepting these emotions allows individuals to process them more effectively. Open communication, both with oneself and with those affected by the impending change, serves as a therapeutic outlet, fostering understanding and support.

Second, engage in self-care practices. Prioritizing physical well-being, maintaining healthy routines, and incorporating activities that bring joy contribute to emotional resilience. Finally, fostering a supportive network, whether it's friends, family, or support groups, creates a safety net of understanding and compassion. Together, these approaches can ease the strain of anticipatory grieving, nurturing a path toward healing and a more resilient emotional state.

Anticipatory grief is a tender acknowledgment of the human capacity to feel deeply and anticipate the shifts in life's journey. By understanding its manifestations, embracing the diverse ways it presents itself, and implementing strategies for emotional well-being, we can navigate these transitions with compassion and resilience. Life, with its inevitability of change, becomes a series of anticipatory griefs, each a testament to our capacity for growth, adaptation, and the enduring nature of the human spirit.

If you or someone you know is grieving and wants extra support, talk with a HOLD professional listener. We're here for you!

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