Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

How to recognize—and cope with—anticipatory grief

By Kells McPhillips

We often think of the grieving process as something that happens in the aftermath of a diagnosis, death, or calamity. But the truth is, grief doesn’t always wait. Sometimes, expecting a tragedy can cause a very real, very painful type of grief known as “anticipatory grief.”

“Anticipatory grief is emotional pain related to a loss that is expected to occur,” says psychologist Brandy Smith. While the term is most often used to denote the imminent death of a loved one, anticipatory grief can also wash over you when you’re waiting for a medical diagnosis, anticipating a mental or physical decline, or are about to lose your job, a relationship, or housing. 

Unsurprisingly, anticipatory grief feels like grief grief—because it is. “A wide range of emotions may be experienced, including but not limited to fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger,” says Smith. “You may also have difficulty staying in the present moment, which can also impact your ability to focus." She adds that changes in sleep (wanting more or less) and appetite (reduced or increased) may occur.

These emotions are very common. As human beings, all of us will eventually have to wade through the deep sorrow that comes before, during, and after loss. Fortunately, there are plenty of therapist-approved coping mechanisms at your disposal.

5 tips for coping with anticipatory grief

1. Make a grief plan

We’re all unique, and thus, we will all require different types of self-care in this moment, according to psychiatrist Shana Feibel, DO, adjunct clinical professor at the Southern Ohio University College of Medicine. “I always advise people to make a list of what helps them the most—almost like a grief plan,” she says. 

To create this list, ask yourself what’s specifically comforting to you. You’ll want to cover all of your bases, from work to home to your social life, so you can find solace in every sector of life. Perhaps cozy wine nights at home with friends bring you joy, and midday walks at work help you shake off your sadness (at least temporarily). Identify these things so you can do them again and again (and again).

2. Set grieving boundaries

Although there’s merit in feeling your feelings, Smith recommends setting aside specific grieving time, which will allow you to maintain at least some semblance of normalcy during certain periods of your day. “While it can be helpful to think about the loss, it is also important to remain present with life and not attempt to live in the future. Find that ‘sweet spot’ between ignoring versus overthinking to the point of it being unhelpful or even harmful,” she says. 

Perhaps you set aside twenty minutes a day to sit on your couch and let everything wash over you. Or, if it feels safe, sit in a park outdoors and think for a while. Remember: The goal here isn’t to totally exile grief from the rest of your day; the goal is to set aside time to be fully present with your emotions. After all, you owe yourself that. 

3. Consider how to maximize the time you have left before tragedy strikes

Now that the tragedy—be it death or something else—is on the horizon, it’s time to start thinking about how to seek the most meaning from this time. “Be intentional with identifying what may be wanted or needed to maximize fulfillment and minimize possible regret,” says Smith. “For example, are there certain conversations or experiences you want to have that will aid fulfillment and reduce regret?”

If you’re caring for a dying loved one, perhaps you want to record some of their favorite memories on your phone so that you can revisit them in the future. Or maybe you want to travel to a certain place together while you still can. Whatever it is, write it down and make it happen. You won’t regret it. 

4. Decide how much information you really need to know

Smith points out that people can get carried away when it comes to researching their diagnosis or that of a family member. While this urge comes from a good place, it can ultimately push you to live in the future rather than enjoying the time you have in the present. That’s why she recommends self-reflecting on how much information is useful to you right now. 

“For some people, learning more about what to expect is helpful. The degree of information desired varies by person. While some people find minimal information helpful, others want as much information and detail as possible,” she says. Think: What would help me the most? 

5. Seek professional help and join a grief group

If therapy is within your means, now is the time to speak with a professional on a regular basis. A licensed therapist or psychologist can help you work through your feelings and strategize how to best care for yourself at this moment. A psychiatrist may also prescribe medication, which many people benefit from during the valleys of life. 

Whether you’re in therapy or not, you should also consider joining a real-life or online grief group. Many of these meetings are free and a great way to avoid the isolation that you may feel on the precipice of a loss. 

Once again, as alone as you may feel right now, take solace in the fact that so many people out there are grieving along with you. Coping with an imminent loss is no easy feat, but there is a community out there that’s ready to embrace you. 

If you or someone you love need grief support right now, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24/7 at 1-800-622-HELP or dial 988.

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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