When a loved one is given a life-altering medical diagnosis such as dementia, it is not uncommon to experience anticipatory grief.

When a spouse files for divorce, a divorce that may or may not be wanted, it is not uncommon to experience anticipatory grief.

When, physical and cognitive functioning and a sense of self slowly erode due to the aging process, it is not uncommon to experience anticipatory grief. 

And when losses due to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic have you expecting more losses, this too can be the experience of anticipatory grief. 

Anticipatory grief is most often defined as grief that occurs prior to death, or another great loss. Losses related to anticipatory grief take place over a period of time as what was once familiar and seemingly certain irrevocably changes. Sources of loss normally associated with this type of grief can include loss of: companionship; financial stability; family structure; a dreamed-of future; and more.

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the usual definition of anticipatory grief. Mandated sheltering-in aimed at slowing the virus’s spread collectively and individually took us from the flow, routine and rhythm of normal life and abruptly dropped us into an uncertain present and future. Now as we mourn the loss of thousands of lives and what once was, many of us are also anticipating and grieving pandemic-related short-term and long-term losses yet to come. Related to past experiences, uncertainty and fear of the unknown, some of those anticipated losses may include:

  • A continuing sense of lost safety  
  • Fear about contracting or dying from COVID-19
  • Chronic worry for the health, safety and welfare of family members and friends
  • Job loss or change
  • Fear of people who wear a mask
  • Fear of people who do not wear a mask
  • Feelings of isolation due to social distancing
  • Loss of financial security
  • Additional financial losses
  • Loss of faith in the government and government institutions
  • Loss of faith in doctors and science   
  • Loss of food security
  • Canceled vacation plans
  • Canceled family gatherings and special events
  • Canceled sporting and recreational events
  • Loss of traditions
  • Fears for the future
  • Fear that things will never be normal again

The pandemic has brought the large-scale, mass suffering of others to our doorstep. Witnessing that suffering can have the effect of intensifying our own individual feelings of loss or impending loss. A predicted loss does not have to become a reality in order to activate feelings of grief and loss; feelings such as sadness, fear, loneliness, anxiety, anger and more, are all typical emotions related to anticipatory grief. 

Other possible symptoms of anticipatory loss can include:  

  • Preoccupation with pandemic news
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the pandemic 
  • Disrupted sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little; unusual dreams)
  • A lack of mental focus and clarity 
  • Digestive problems, headaches and other health issues 
  • A lack of energy
  • Emotional eating (eating too much or not enough)  

Good self-care - rather than trying to maintain normalcy - is key to coping with anticipatory grief. Some important self-care guidelines include:

Take care of the basics. Eat and sleep well, and exercise.

Connect with others. Even with social distancing you can still maintain social relationships through phone calls, via Zoom, emails and texting.  

Maintain a routine. Within the context of sheltering-in, a routine can still be maintained. Wake, prepare meals, eat and go to sleep at regular hours each day. Set aside specific times each day for stress reduction as well as pleasurable hobbies and activities. 

Talk about your feelings. There are no good or bad, right or wrong feelings when it comes to grief and loss. Sharing your feelings with someone you trust can help make whatever you are feeling less overwhelming and more manageable.   

Seek support. On-line support from a grief professional might be helpful at this time; ask your doctor or a medical professional for a referral.

Finally, allow yourself to grieve. We have all gone through – and continue to go through - a collective experience of loss that has affected our individual everyday lives in ways large and small. Honoring and acknowledging the truth of what you feel can help to heal your sense of grief and loss.