Coping with anticipatory grief when you're supporting someone living with cancer

Sunset with blue sky and the shadow of trees

The feeling of grief and loss before a loved one’s passing is something that is often discussed here on the Community. If you’re feeling this way at the moment, or have done in the past, you’re not alone.

This blog is exploring anticipatory grief and hopefully you’ll find some comfort and ways of processing anticipatory grief after reading the following.

What is anticipatory grief?

Anticipatory grief can be experienced when you’re aware of an impending loss. It’s the feeling like you're coping with bereavement before a loved one dies.

The feelings associated with grief, such as sadness, guilt, anger and denial, don't only surface after a loved one has died. It’s not uncommon to start the grieving process before a loved one’s passing.

“Someone wrote on one of the chats that when someone you love has terminal cancer you start to grieve when you find out, I thought this was a load of rubbish when I first read it but living through it I agree you do grieve, for the life you wanted to have for the future with them and for what you are losing and not going to be able to do.”
Community member, Supporting someone with incurable cancer forum

“I feel like I'm grieving everyday for what's to come.”
Community member, Carer’s only forum

“I feel so guilty when my mind races ahead to what life will mean without her.”
Community member, Carer’s only forum

A previous bereavement can trigger anticipatory grief, especially if there are some similarities in the losses or if the bereavement was recent.

“In October just passed we discovered that my partner has stage 4 prostate cancer with bone and lung mets. I’m devastated beyond words. I’m haemorrhaging feelings of grief and don’t know if I can face this again. The constant highs and lows have begun already,  I have no answers but I’m sending you love and strength to get through this from someone who truly knows anticipatory grief.”
Community member, Supporting someone with incurable cancer forum

Community member's experiences

Everyone has their own ways of dealing with their emotions. As this member explains below, it can help your overall wellbeing to openly talk about how they are feeling with their loved ones while they are still here so you can support each other. Having the space to express how you are feeling to one another may help you be more present in the time you have left.

“Getting it all out is part of the grieving process and it is actually a start to the healing process so do what feels natural at the time and don’t be afraid to share with family they will be feeling the same. Be with your dad if you can and he will know you are there and feel your love. If tears come don’t worry just let it be. We don’t know how we get through what we need to get through in life at times, but we do, and you will too. You are definitely not alone.”
Community member, Supporting someone with incurable cancer forum

As a friend, caregiver or family member, it’s ok to want to grieve for the plans that you won’t experience together. Your life is also affected by cancer and it’s natural to feel this loss. It may you appreciate the time you still have together and the opportunity to make new memories while you can.

“We used to laugh every day, talk endlessly and have so many dreams for the future.... cancer has taken that all away.  I think it's only natural to mourn the loss of a past that made you happy, we wouldn't be human if we didn't and I don't think that makes us ungrateful for the fact that our husbands are still alive, it makes us conscious of how lucky we were in the past to share our lives with them and hopefully that helps us to appreciate that we still have a life to live with them - even if it is vastly different to what was.”
Community member, Carer’s only forum

Some people find comfort knowing a loved one is will be at peace once they have passed away and realise that the anticipatory grief had helped them process their loss they died.

“Whilst I have had moments of sadness, I am more thankful for who he was rather than emotional about the loss. It feels strange to not feel more deeply emotional… I feel like a bit of an anomaly and scared that I don't feel more sad like you would typically expect through a grieving process. My only thinking is that it's anticipatory grief and the reality is I have been grieving and preparing ever since he was diagnosed and so it doesn't feel so sudden.”
Community member, Bereaved family and friends forum

Finding additional support

Accessing bereavement and emotional support can help. If you’re in need of some additional support, you can find comfort from posting in the different support groups here on the Community.

There’s other resources listed below that may be helpful to you:

Hopefully the above has made you feel less alone and you’ve been able to connect with the way some of the above members have been feeling. If you have, click on the discussion link under each quote and join in the conversations. 

If there’s something that you’d like us to discuss in more detail in our Community News blog, please do let us know in the comment box below, or email community@macmillan.org.uk. The Comment box is also a safe place to share your own experiences so if you feel comfortable doing so, I'm sure others will find comfort from reading your personal experience. 

Anonymous
  • I am definitely struggling to picture future without my dad who would always talk about looking after my grandkids and cancer has taken it away and it breaks my heart. Some useful advice given to me which I will take on is to record videos of Dad giving me life advice, recording a message for my grandkids when they come, so I can always keep it with me when I need it and feel his presence Heart … finding the words to do it is hard, but time isn’t on our side and these this often get left unsaid.. I don’t want any regrets of what i should of done or said 

  • Hi

    It's Megan here from Macmillan's Online Community team. I'm so sorry to hear about your dad and what you're going through as a family. I hope the above blog has been helpful and made you feel that you're not alone.

    I'm sure others reading this page will find your comment about recording some videos helpful. I hope the videos of your dad can offer some comfort to you. 

    If you need a space to talk about how you're coping, our Community groups have lots of members who can share their personal experiences and offer some peer support when you feel you need it. 

    The Online Community team is here to help all our members use the site and find the support they are looking for. If there's something we can do to support you, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

    You can contact the Online Community team every day by sending a private message to the Moderator account, or by emailing community@macmillan.org.uk.