Feeling Depressed About Aging Parents: Understanding Anticipatory Grief

Your 1+1 Team
June 5, 2024

Anticipatory grief is an emotional experience that often goes unnoticed, especially among adult children and caregivers. Unlike the grief felt after a loss, which is widely recognized and discussed, anticipatory grief is less understood, making it difficult for people to identify and process. This type of grief emerges before the actual loss, typically triggered by a serious diagnosis or the anticipation of losing a loved one to illness or aging.

Alicea Ardito, a licensed clinical social worker, explains, “Anticipatory grief is a process that occurs before an expected loss.” This grief is not just about facing death; it encompasses many types of significant changes and losses. For instance, it can arise after a dementia diagnosis or when dealing with the decline of a loved one’s health due to natural aging.

Recognizing Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief involves acknowledging the impending loss and the changes it brings to your life and relationships. Elizabeth Schandelmeier, a grief expert, describes it as “knowing that somebody is going to die and starting to acknowledge the changes that are happening.” It can also occur with other major life changes, such as losing independence due to illness, facing an impending divorce, or undergoing significant medical procedures like a mastectomy.

There is no set time frame for anticipatory grief. It can last from a few minutes to several years and often fluctuates in intensity. Jessica Lamar, a clinical psychologist, notes that anyone facing a significant life change, including caregivers and healthcare professionals, can experience anticipatory grief. Even those coping with their own diagnosis may go through this process, sometimes referred to as “preparatory grief.”

Triggers and Symptoms

Triggers for anticipatory grief vary, from a concrete diagnosis to observing a cognitive or physical decline in a loved one. It often leads to imagining life without them, which can be a way to unconsciously prepare for their loss. Common feelings include depression, anxiety, anger, and sadness, among others.

A significant but often overlooked aspect is guilt. Many people judge themselves harshly for feeling grief while their loved one is still alive. This can stem from feeling overwhelmed by caregiving responsibilities or the stress of watching a loved one decline.

Managing Anticipatory Grief

  1. Educate Yourself: Understanding your loved one’s condition can help reduce anxiety. Ask medical providers about the prognosis, treatment expectations, and signs of both improvement and decline.
  2. Acknowledge and Express Your Feelings: Recognize your emotions and find ways to express them. Talk to a therapist, a friend, or family members, and consider journaling. Discussing your feelings with your loved one who is sick can also create a deeper connection.
  3. Seek Support Early: Don’t wait until you’re in crisis to seek help. Establish a support system early on, whether through therapy, support groups, or assistance from friends and family.
  4. Get Inquisitive: Engage with your loved one by asking about their life and family history. This can provide comfort and create lasting memories.
  5. Focus on the Present: Make the most of the time you have with your loved one. Create meaningful moments and focus on the quality of your interactions.
  6. Set Boundaries: If your relationship with your loved one is strained, set boundaries to protect your emotional well-being. Delegate caregiving tasks to others if necessary.
  7. Take Care of Yourself: Maintain your physical health to cope better emotionally. Ensure you eat well, get enough sleep and exercise. Practice mindfulness or engage in activities that bring you peace.
  8. Differentiate Between Self-Care and Self-Improvement: Self-care should fit into your existing life without adding stress. Look for small ways to nurture yourself, such as taking deep breaths or enjoying a favorite song.

Anticipatory grief is a natural and valid form of grief. It can bring intense emotions, but recognizing and acknowledging these feelings, building a support network, and taking care of yourself can help you navigate this challenging time. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to experience this type of grief. Be kind to yourself and seek professional support if needed.

1+1 Cares is a referral agency that works for clients and caregivers. We match caregivers with clients and inform them of your requirements. We work for you so you and your loved one can have a safe, enjoyable caregiving experience.

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