Anticipatory Grief Symptoms: What's the Big Deal?

Harriet Hodgson

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Anticipatory grief has been described as a “normal process, " but life is far from normal if you're going through it. Some experts list symptoms in broad terms, and others list them in detail. Short list or long, anticipatory grief symptoms are jarring.

You may have bouts of crying, for example, a symptom that upsets you and those around you. You may hold back your tears because you have to be strong for your loved one. All through the day you have a choked feeling in your throat. Holding back tears takes lots of energy and, before long, you're exhausted.

You don't talk publicly about your grief because you're afraid of the reactions you'll get. It takes courage to “grieve in a society that mistakenly values restraint, " according to Judy Tatelbaum, author of “The Courage to Grieve. " But if you're going to heal you must face anticipatory grief and its symptoms. Your survival depends on this self-honesty.


Just as reading about the flu differs from getting it, reading about anticipatory grief differs from experiencing it. Suddenly, anticipatory grief is personal and you can't escape its symptoms. “What happened to my life?" you may ask.

Antiipatory grief happened and the symptoms include denial, mood swings, forgetfulness, disorganized and confused behavior, anger, depression, feeling disconneced and alone. You may have health symptoms, too, such as weight loss or gain, sleep problems, nervous behavior, and general fatigue.

Fatigue and the strain of handling symptoms can lead to depression. Keep in mind that depression isn't the same as the blues. You may wish to talk with a physician to see if you're depressed. Depression is treatable and new medications can get you over this hump.


The worst symptoms of all - anxiety and dread - illustrate this point. Robert Fulton, PhD and Robert Bendiksen, PhD discuss anxiety in their book, “Death & Identity. " You expect your loved one to die, they explain, but “exactly when it will take place is not known. "

The suspense is unbearable. If you feel this badly now, how will you feel when your loved one is gone?

Talking about feelings will help you to relieve anxiety. Instead of brooding alone, talk with a trusted friend. Your church and local hospital may have grief support groups. You may also get support from national associations, such as the Alzheimer's Association.


Having the symptoms is bad enough, but these symptoms also vary in intensity. What a bummer. Your anticipatory grief symptoms are always present, interrupting thoughts, nagging at you, adding to your worry and sorrow. Like a roller coaster track, your emotions zig-zag up and down.

These may be your feelings, but identifying them is hard. Keeping a diary is one way to identify and track your feelings. Your partner and familily members may also be able to help you. When all is said and done, however, you must help yourself.

This is good time to draw upon your personality strengths. Use your intelligence, skills, and hobbies to your advantage. Prepare yourself for the variations in intensity because they'll happen. You'll also need to prepare yourself for a long haul.


Depending on your loved one's illness, you may grieve for year, five years, 10 years, or more. The slow decline of a loved one is a heavy burden. Edward Myers, in his book “When Parents Die, " says this burden comes with special hardships. Myers compares a slow decline to an advancing glacier.

A sudden death hits you like an explosion, Myers explains, and sends you into shock, whereas a slow deline “arrives more like a glacier, massive and unstoppable, grinding you down. " Dealing with the symptoms of anticipatory grief gets harder with each passing day.


One thing you can do is give yourself permission to cry. Tears are an emotional release, according to Jeffrey A. Kottler, author of “The Language of Tears. " He thinks crying brings people together. When you cry and share your story with others they share their stories with you.

You may compile a support list. Put contact names, phone numbers, and email addresses on your list. Add anticipatory grief “prescriptions" to your list, things like a daily walking group, half-day cooking class, or book club meeting.

Anticipatory grief symptoms are a big deal. Handling these symptoms is one of the best deals you'll ever make with yourself. The things you learn today will brighten your tomorrows.

Copyright 2005 by Harriet Hodgson. To learn more about her work go to .

Harriet Hodgson has been a nonfiction writer for 27 years and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, " written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from . A five-star review of the book is also posted on Amazon. The book is packed with Healing Steps - 114 in all - that lead readers to their own healing path.


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