Chapter 2: Living with illness and grief

Grieving before a loss or a death

The grief expert says
Kenneth Doka, thanatologist, speaks about anticipatory mourning and the grief from losses that occur throughout illness. (3:22)Video transcript

Besides grieving what I’ve already lost, I’m worried about the losses I know are coming. It sometimes feels like we are always grieving another loss.

My grandfather had this disease too, so I felt like I knew what was coming. I found myself bracing for the pain and grief of the losses along the way and, of course, bracing for her eventual death.

How can I be grieving when the person is still alive?

You might think of grief as something that happens after death. In reality, grieving often begins when a person is diagnosed with serious illness, and the grieving continues over the course of the illness. This is called anticipatory grief or anticipatory mourning and reflects the losses that living with a serious illness brings.

Anticipatory grief can be experienced by the person living with the illness as well as those who care about them. Below are some of the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that you might experience as part of anticipatory grief. Click on each to read more

In addition, you might also be experiencing other aspects of grief, including

  • Forgetfulness or poor concentration
  • Increased or decreased sleep or eating
  • Irritation or impatience
  • Depression

Because grief is individual, thinking about these kinds of losses during illness or before a death will not necessarily ease your grieving when death eventually occurs. However, identifying and grieving these losses is important for developing coping strategies, both now and in the future, because you will have a better idea of what you need.

What may help

  • Consider how to best spend the time you do have together.
  • Focus on what the person can do rather than on what they can’t.
  • Reach out to supportive people to share your fears or concerns for the future.