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Is It Possible to Grieve for Something Before You’ve Lost It?

The answer is yes. It even has a name: Anticipatory Grief or Preparatory Grief. Many of us have experienced it but until recently I didn’t know there was a name for it.

It can be triggered when you know change is coming. It is the distress you may feel before a loss, based on what you believe you will lose.

By Ellie Rich-Poole

This phenomenon is most commonly seen in cases of progressive and terminal illness when patients’ carers and loved ones know that a bereavement is coming. It was first noted by Erich Lindemann, a psychiatrist, in the 1940s who saw how loved ones of soldiers leaving for World War II were affected.

You can experience it when you know a relationship is coming to an end and that life will be changing in a significant way, or something many of us will have experienced: when we know we have to leave a place that has become home, and move somewhere new and start again. You can also experience it in the working world, where dealing with change in our professional lives has similarities.

In work, when change happens that we have no control over such as a redundancy, the shock factor can be huge. But in many cases, the change happens quickly, not leaving much time for anticipatory grief. More likely, a planned change that you initiate such as resigning from a job or planning to do so at a particular point will trigger anticipatory grief.

You may find yourself processing the anticipated loss of your routine, your day-to-day work relationships and in some cases your identity, especially if work is a big part of who you are. If you think about it, many people struggle to talk about who they are without saying what they do and where they do it.

Emotions you might feel when experiencing anticipatory grief include: hopelessness, isolation, fear, anxiety, guilt, relief, annoyance, sadness, loneliness, dread, denial and hope.

Just like the grief cycle, you are unlikely to experience these emotions in neat stages. Some may affect you more than others. You may have conflicting emotions. You may move quickly from one to another.

So how can you support yourself if you are anticipating change and are already grieving?

1. Be kind to yourself. Just because you are dealing with a work or relocation change not a bereavement, don’t belittle it. Yes, there may be people worse off than you, but it is still important to process the change. Listen to your inner voice and the language you are using. Are you treating yourself like you would treat someone you care about?

2. Write down your thoughts and feelings. This isn’t something many of us would naturally do, but it is really helpful. No one else needs to see it, just write what is going through your head. Name the emotions you are experiencing. Acknowledge what is happening and it will help you process it.

3. Talk to someone that you trust. Use your support system, perhaps someone you know has gone through something similar and you could reach out to them. If you don’t have anyone suitable consider investing in a coach. They will keep everything confidential and be a safe sounding board for you.

4. Prioritize self-care and non-work activities. It isn’t selfish to invest some time in yourself, it is vital. What else do you enjoy or care about apart from work? How could you increase the time you spend doing it? What allows you to switch off and just ‘be’?

5. Reflect on what is important to you next. Dedicate time to get clear on your objectives for the next stage, whether this is about securing a new role or taking time out or doing some voluntary work. Do this in advance of the change and start putting plans in place so you can get to action when the time is right for you.

Ask for help if you are struggling. Significant change at work or in life is a big deal. Especially if what you do has morphed into who you are, it is a genuine loss not having this identity any more. Don’t keep it to yourself.


December 2022

"Right in Front of You"

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