Anticipatory Grief. Is It a Friend or Enemy?

Did you know people grieve before loss?

The circumstances vary:

  • A couple waits for a diagnosis, like two inexperienced hikers confronted by a swinging foot bridge over a gorge. The specialist's white lab coat glows in the low-lighted ICU room. Tick. The IV machine booms in the silence with each drip of antibiotic, while he checks their eighteen-month-old son's vital signs. Finished, he stands up and faces them ...
  • The fifty-year-old man exits his manager's office holding the pink slip in his hand ...
  • Retirement looms for a sixty-five-year-old man. Panic mixes with excitement
  • A woman's phone rings. Her mother who lives in assisted living is on the other end, "Where are you? You were supposed to be home hours ago."

The list of scenarios goes on.

They all share a common threat—

something or someone they

treasure is in danger of dying.

Death often occurs gradually like winter nipping away at summer until it disappears.

The gambit, and concoction of feelings that accompany us in the journey, churn from one source—anticipatory grief—a different kind of grief from what we experience after death.

Anticipatory grief dogs all of us sometime in our lives like a popular high girl's devoted, but emotionally unpredictable and socially unacceptable friend, who can dampen any party.

  • It dons disguises from explosive anger to depression, from hyperactivity to isolation, to get our attention.
  • We think we lose our shadow in a crowded schedule, only to find the melancholy creature crashes a lunch date, highjacking the conversation with a litany of criticism against medical professionals, divorce lawyers, or the soon-to-be-ex-boss.
  • At times our uninvited companion seems to disappear.  But, when we arrive home and set an armful of groceries down on the counter in the kitchen, our dubious friend sits in the living room. Waiting. To engage with us.

Yes, anticipatory grief is a friend, not an enemy. 









Acceptance at the first viable threat is like the day I walked into the Arctic winds blowing south while walking north on a beach in Gloucester, MA, one Labor Day in high school.           

My family had come up to close the summer cottage. I had brought a friend. That morning, we crossed the pedestrian bridge to the beach. The wind whipped a styrofoam cup across the sand. Its vicious bite devoured any memory of summer. The parking lot bare, lifeguard stands empty, announced, "Beach officially closed." I cocooned myself in a blanket over my sweater and jacket. My friend raced into the wind, her jacket zipped halfway.

“Let go,” she called as she spun down the beach, arms wide. “Relax. Stop fighting the chill.”

How would exposure stop my chattering teeth?

  • Facing the wind,  I broke open the cocoon.

  • My arms expanded like a newly hatched butterfly. White knuckles clutched the last hope of warmth. My body exploded with goose bumps.

  • I closed my eyes against the sting of winter.

The sun's warmth seeped through my eyelids. Rhythm of breaking waves and the call of the sea gulls crashed my resistance. I inhaled. The cocoon fell to the sand and winter's nippiness washed over me. Plunging into the cold, arms wide, I ran after her.

Before acquainting ourselves with our anticipatory grief's quirky personality, we first turn. Open our arms and let the nip of winter cover us.

Whether we insulate ourselves, or not, our uninvited friend is trustworthy.

Acknowledging anticipatory' grief's presence will change how we perceive the autumn of loss

  • Do you clutch a treasure that is in danger of being lost?
  • What would it look like for you to face the Arctic wind of loss and embrace the chill?