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Dealing with Anticipatory Grief and Caregiving

Anticipatory grief is the name given to the angst and sorrow that accompanies the knowledge that your loved one almost certainly is going to die from whatever disease or debilitating condition he's suffering. The watchword of anticipatory grief is angst: You fear the loss that you know is coming more than you actually grieve it.

Anticipatory grief often is accompanied by outbursts of sorrow and rage followed by bouts of depression. Because this type of grief is intertwined with fear, you find it particularly draining, especially when you're dealing with the other stresses associated with being a caregiver for your dying loved one.

Many people mistakenly believe that, in suffering anticipatory grief, they lessen the grief that they'll experience when death finally comes. Unfortunately, this is not so. Don't expect the grief that you feel and the grieving process that you have to undergo when your loved one finally passes away to be any less even if you've suffered a ton of anticipatory grief.

Some grief professionals debate whether or not anticipatory grief can be separated from the other stresses you undergo as a caregiver. It's well documented that being a caregiver for a loved one who's dying is extremely stressful for any number of the following reasons:

  • Burnout from trying to do all the caregiving on your own without the help of others or from having to be the caregiver for more than one loved one (as in trying to care for both your aged or ailing parents at the same time).
  • Feelings of extreme isolation when the caregiving seems to take over every aspect of your life.
  • Resentment toward the loved one for needing the care, frustration with the medical or insurance bureaucracy, and/or anger toward other family members for not helping with caregiving.
  • Guilt that you aren't able provide to better care for your loved one, for finally having to put him in a nursing home, and/or for not being able to save his life.
  • Difficulty watching the health and vitality of someone you love decline.
  • Helplessness in the face of the anticipated loss and the overwhelming and growing demands of being the caregiver for an increasingly incapacitated loved one.

Don't ignore the feelings of angst and stress associated with anticipatory grief and with caregiving for a loved one. Instead, find ways to express and validate your feelings. Seek the help of family or grief counselors, social workers, or psychologists in order to keep yourself going. If you're a primary caregiver, you also may need to get some help with the caregiving from other family members, community services, or a hospice team. Although you may feel as though you have to "keep it together" in order to be an effective caregiver, you may actually be less effective if you don't deal with the psychological tolls from the stresses related to caregiving.

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