What is Anticipatory Grief?

Information on pre-bereavement and dealing with grief

Last updated: 20 January 2017

It is well-known that when a loved one dies, you can expect to experience grief – a reaction to loss that can involve many different intense emotions. However, what is less well-known is that you can begin to experience a type of grief before someone dies. This is known as anticipatory grief or pre-bereavement.

Anticipatory grief most commonly happens when a loved one’s death is expected imminently, such as when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. It may be that a doctor has told you that your loved one does not have long to live, or they may be elderly and you have become aware that they might not have much time left.

In some cases, the person who is dying may also experience anticipatory grief.

It is vital to note that not everyone whose loved one is dying will experience anticipatory grief. There have not been enough scientific studies to say for sure how often pre-bereavement happens. If your loved one is at the end of life and you are not experiencing pre-bereavement, this is okay – this does not necessarily mean there is a problem.

Symptoms of anticipatory grief

Many of the symptoms of pre-bereavement are like grief, although doctors and grief specialists emphasise that pre-bereavement isn’t the same as grief.

If you are expecting the death of a loved one and are experiencing anticipatory grief, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Feeling anxious or concerned for your loved one
  • Feeling overwhelmed, sad or depressed
  • Becoming angry or irritable
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Experiencing a sense of loneliness
  • Poor concentration, forgetfulness
  • Repeatedly imagining what your loved one’s death will be like or what life will be like after they are gone
  • Being on constant alert, feeling unable to relax

When your loved one dies

Some psychological studies have shown that if a person experiences anticipatory grief, they may be in some ways more emotionally prepared when their loved one dies. Their feelings of grief may be less intense or easier to cope with.

However, grief is unique to everyone, and experiencing pre-bereavement is no guarantee that you will not grieve, or will grieve less, when your loved one dies.

Read more about coping with bereavement, or contact a bereavement support organisation for pre-bereavement support and advice across Australia.