If you’re about to lose a loved one or suffer a major loss, you may feel out of sorts. The worst hasn’t happened yet, but you know it’s coming. And sometimes it seems like it already has. You may be experiencing what’s called anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is common when you find out a friend, relative, or even a pet may be close to death. It can also happen when you yourself get diagnosed with a terminal illness or find out you need an amputation.
Symptoms of anticipatory grief can include sadness or tearfulness, fear, anger, and anxiety. Irritability, moodiness, and antisocial behavior are also common. Anticipatory grief can sometimes affect your memory and concentration or cause lethargy, difficulty sleeping, and changes in appetite. Here are some ways to care for yourself if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
1. Express Your Feelings
The first step to managing anticipatory grief is to talk it out and express your feelings. It’s best not to lean on the sick person for emotional support; instead speak to others who’ve been through similar situations. Find a trusted friend or family member who’s experienced a loss and let them know how you’re feeling. If no one in your circle has been through something similar, consider joining a support group. You can also connect with others through online communities like Facebook. There are thousands of online groups for every given situation.
Another great way to express your feelings is journaling. Writing down your feelings can help you process them, especially when you can’t necessarily depend on others. Whatever method you choose, make sure you allow yourself to feel the full range of your emotions. Irritability and anger are just as acceptable as sadness. Bottling up your emotional pain can make you feel worse both physically and mentally.
2. Treat Mental Health Symptoms
If processing emotions on your own or with your community isn’t working, it’s time to consider mental health treatment. You may want to seek out a therapist who specializes in grief, loss, or terminal illness. There are lots of different therapy modalities, like narrative (talk) therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help.
If you think your grief is causing symptoms of mental illness, you might also need a prescription medication. Online mental health treatment is available for conditions like anxiety and depression. An online provider can diagnose your symptoms and even have medications delivered to you. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help with both physical and emotional symptoms of anticipatory grief.
3. Take Good Care of Your Body
When you’re going through difficult times, it’s easy to let go of healthy habits. But mental and physical symptoms have a way of aggravating one another. To cope with your grief, it’s important to do the best you can to take care of your physical body. This is especially true if you’re the one experiencing a medical issue or about to undergo a major surgery.
If you can, engage in regular exercise, however gentle it may be, such as gardening or going for a short walk. It’s okay if you cope by eating junk food now and then. Still, try to maintain a balanced diet by eating your fruits and vegetables and getting enough protein. Avoid alcohol, smoking, and any kind of drug use. Though it may be difficult to sleep, try your best to stick to a schedule and maintain good sleep hygiene.
4. Try Alternative Therapies and Spirituality
A number of other holistic methods can help you cope with your anticipatory grief. Mindful meditation has repeatedly been shown to help with the effects of grief. It can reduce symptoms of depression, reduce anxiety, and improve memory. You can try joining a local meditation group or a yoga class that features meditation. Various apps also exist to guide you through meditation on your own.
If sitting in silence isn’t your thing, other modalities may have similar benefits. You can try art therapy, which helps you explore your emotions through painting, drawing, or sculpture. Music and dance therapy may also help. Numerous self-help books exist on the topics of grief, anticipatory grief, caregiving, and more. You may also feel relief through reconnecting with your spiritual side, whether through a religious group or spiritual literature.
5. Enjoy Quality Time
One of the best ways to cope with anticipatory grief is to spend time with your loved ones. It may be scary to spend time with someone you know you’re going to lose. But if you avoid a dying loved one, you may come to regret it later. If a friend or relative has a terminal illness, make time to sit and talk or simply sit in presence with them. If your pet is aging, spend extra time petting them or take them on more walks.
Do what you can to make this time meaningful. If possible, share stories, photos, or memorabilia of the memories you share. Do activities together that you both enjoy, read them a book, or watch a movie together. If your loved one wants to talk about their death, don’t be afraid to let them broach the subject. Listening intently and letting them express their feelings will help you feel closer to them and get closure.
Acknowledging and Accepting Reality
Whatever your chosen coping mechanisms are, the most important thing is not to avoid your feelings. Numbing out, denying, or avoiding thinking about the loss could have repercussions later. The better care you take of yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for others or deal with your own struggles. There’s no quick fix, of course, for the tremendous pain of losing someone or something important to you. The good news is, by processing your emotions now, you may avoid greater pain and mental health symptoms later.