Grief Before Death – It Happens

Grief is a natural component of human adaptation to change. While bereavement usually refers to those who have lost a loved one, anticipatory (or preparatory) grief occurs both in the dying and in those close to them.

Anticipatory grief can develop in response to receiving a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness, as well as anywhere along the course of illness, particularly as symbolic losses accumulate. This can include loss of physical abilities, autonomy, control, predictability, mental clarity, role or status in family, future hopes and dreams, sense of belonging, and sense of purpose

  • Know that grief tends to fluctuate and experiencing joy and grief simultaneously is possible. Emotional ups and downs are a “normal” part of facing a life-limiting illness.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with a family member or friend who is able to supportively listen, without giving advice or passing judgment.
  • Try to stick to your regular routines to maintain a sense of normalcy, making adaptations to adjust for any physical or cognitive changes.
  • Develop a strong working relationship with your medical providers so you can feel comfortable getting your questions answered and sharing your fears or concerns.

If your emotional “downs” stick with you (rather than fluctuate), or your grief is accompanied by poor self-esteem or thoughts of actively harming yourself, consider meeting with a social worker, chaplain, counselor, or psychologist for professional support. Make sure your clinician has experience working with individuals and families facing serious medical illness.

By Meghan Marty, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Transitions Professional Center

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