Comparing Grief and Anticipatory Grief Theory

By Tess Thompson

While traditional grief is an emotional reaction to death or a loss that has occurred, anticipatory grief is a state of anxiety, fear and sadness caused by worry about an impending death. It is characterized by an increased preoccupancy with the dying person, review of forms of death, or nervousness with regards to the readjustments that may be necessitated in the future.

Anticipatory grief is a controversial subject and there are differing theories. Some experts actually call it a misnomer. The general understanding is that anticipatory grief is similar to traditional grief on a definite loss, but differs with regards to timing. In most cases, it extenuates the post-bereavement grief. However, efforts to find a link between the two have not been successful, but it appears that there is a basic underlying difference between traditional grief and anticipatory grief.

If we consider a limited view of an anticipated death, a lot of other factors have to be taken into account. The past, present and future implications of death due to a terminal disease are the variables that are not present in the case of grief due to an expected death. Moreover, physiological, psychological, inter-personal and socio-cultural factors play a more forefront role in anticipatory grief than they do in the case of normal grief. With survival times extending due to medical advancements, due consideration should be paid to the mental state of hoping against hope.

On the flip side, there is the argument that terminal disease factually intensifies post-bereavement grief when we see the unbearable affects of the disease on our loved one. In some cases, there is a possibility of decathexis, or withdrawing one's feeling of attachment prematurely in anticipation of a future loss.

Contrary to post-bereavement grief, emotions need to be managed for the dying person as well as the caregiver, family and friends. The dying individual passes through grief too, albeit in a different manner and with different dimensions.

Anticipated death prepares the family for the approaching bereavement and curtails a show of abnormal emotions. It also provides time to complete certain things and for detachment in an orderly fashion, which may not be possible in the event of a sudden death.

It is also argued by some experts that what is being commonly termed as anticipatory grief is actually grieving for the anticipated losses, and not death as such. Whatever you may call it, death remains a sad event in either case, whether anticipated or sudden. Both require a positive mental attitude to overcome.


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