Ask DrB What Is Anticipatory Grief? by Dr. Michelle Bengtson

Dear Dr. B,

You have discussed grief recently prompted by an unexpected and sudden personal loss.  What about grief while a loved one is still alive, but you are slowly watching them slip away to a disease like Alzheimer’s? How is grief different then?



Dear Grieving,

First let me say, I’m so very sorry for your experience. I have great compassion for anyone who is grieving.

What you are describing is called “anticipatory grief.” It’s a form of grief that occurs when you begin to anticipate an impending loss; what it will be like not to have a loved one in your life any longer. It’s common in situations like cancer or dementia.

If you’ve read my recent posts (15 Tips to Survive Grief or How to Grieve or Comforting A Friend Who Has Lost a Child), you know that everyone grieves differently. And how we grieve is impacted by our history, by the circumstances surrounding loss, and by our faith.

Some would say that grief is harder when a death is sudden and unexpected, while still others would say that prolonged anticipatory grief is harder. I have experienced both. Neither one is easy. Grief is grief, loss is loss, and pain is pain.

Sudden and unexpected loss is difficult because we are unprepared and taken by surprise, and many experience regret over what was left undone or unsaid.

Yet losing a loved one to a disease with death as the expected outcome is difficult in a different way. It can result in not appreciating the time you have together because your thoughts are focused on the eventual time when they will no longer be here. And even in a prolonged illness like cancer or dementia, we can never know exactly how much time we have. Some defy the odds and live longer than doctors predict, while others die sooner than expected.

God encourages us, however, not to fear bad news but instead to put our trust in the Lord.

“He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord” (Psalm 112:7).

If you are experiencing grief, even anticipatory grief, I encourage you to take your grief to the Lord, who is well-acquainted with our sorrows.

“Cast all your anxiety on him because He cares for you”
(1 Peter 5:7).

Be thankful for the time you have with your loved ones, and do not waste your time together worrying, for scripture reminds us that tomorrow has enough worries of its own.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).

As you grieve, I pray you will take comfort in God’s promises that you will again one day laugh and will again experience joy.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).

“Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy”
(John 16:20).

Lastly, it’s a sad reality that our memories fade over time. While your loved one is still in your life, I’d encourage you to take the time to journal your memories of your loved one. Write down those things that you never want to forget. Those things you’d want to share with your children or grandchildren about your loved one. Those things that will bring you joy to recall them in the future.

If you and your loved ones are Christians, take comfort in knowing you will be together again in eternity. If you are not and you’d like to know more about how to become a Christian, contact me and I’ll be happy to tell you how you can be.

Hope Prevails,
Dr. B

Factors That Impact Our Grief by Dr. Michelle Bengtson

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