Anticipatory Grief: Mourning for Your Loved One with a Terminal Diagnosis

Anna’s husband was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctors have arranged for him to start palliative chemotherapy and expect that he will live another year. Anna is grateful for the time she has left with her husband but often finds herself thinking about a life without her beloved spouse. She feels guilty for thinking about his funeral while he is still alive, but she can’t help wondering what it will be like. Will she cry or will she be relieved he is no longer in pain? Anna questions how she can plan for the future while she is in a constant state of emergency…

The cancer journey can be an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. Patients and caregivers, like Anna, are forced to deal with a variety of emotions beginning with the diagnosis, continuing through treatment and finally to remission or death. If death is in the foreseeable future, loved ones can experience anticipatory grief.

What is anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory Grief Cancer CaregiversAnticipatory grief is a form of mourning that occurs in anticipation of death. Anticipatory grief is often experienced once patients or their loved ones acknowledge the terminal nature of an illness. This form of grief is most frequently experienced by a caregiver but can also affect the dying individual.

It is important to not mistake anticipatory grief as a lack of faith or a negative attitude. Instead, it should be viewed as a natural human reaction. Anticipatory grief allows individuals time to absorb the reality of loss and address unfinished business such as saying “I love you,” or “I forgive you.”

Anticipatory grief affects the emotional, physical and spiritual being, but does not decrease the amount of grief felt after a death. It is important to remember that all individuals and families experience illness, grief and death in their own unique way.

Symptoms of Anticipatory Grief

According to The National Cancer Institute, the following aspects of anticipatory grief have been identified amongst survivors:

  • Depression
  • Heightened concern for the dying person
  • Rehearsal of the death
  • Attempts to adjust to the consequences of the death

Self Care for the Caregiver

It is crucial for caregivers and loved ones to participate in self care while experiencing anticipatory grief. Below are some specific things that you can do to care for yourself:

  • Talk with a professional, such as a social worker or clergy member, about your fears and emotions.
  • Attend the Caregiver Support Group at Winship.
  • Find little ways to care for yourself throughout the day like going for regular walks, getting plenty of rest and journaling.
  • It’s ok to take a break from cancer and from sadness. Give yourself permission to laugh with friends or see a funny movie.
  • Acknowledge that it is normal to experience a range of emotions during this process such as anger, confusion, sorrow and relief.

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University offers supportive services to caregivers and patients throughout every stage of the cancer journey. Caregivers like Anna do not have to walk this path alone. The Supportive Oncology Team at Winship focuses on improving the quality of life for patients and families affected by cancer. Call 404-778-1900 to schedule an appointment with a member of the Supportive Oncology team.

About Maggie Hughes, LMSW
Maggie Hughes, LMSW, is a medical oncology social worker at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Maggie assists patients at Winship by providing them with supportive counseling and practical resources. She facilitates the Pancreatic Cancer Support Group and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Support Group at Winship. Maggie works with the genitourinary, gastro intestinal, breast, gynecological and sarcoma cancer populations. She has a passion for working with grieving families and is currently working on her certification in Thanatology through The Association for Death Education and Counseling. Maggie received her Master’s Degree in Social Work and Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from The University of Georgia. While a graduate student, Maggie received the Heather Christina Wright Scholarship for Social Workers in Oncology. Maggie has worked in the geriatric hospital setting and in the school system as a social worker.

Related Resources:

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University offers The Purdom Chapel as a quiet place for reflection, prayer and meditation. The Purdom Chapel is located on the first floor at Winship and is open during regular clinic hours. Chaplains are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

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