There’s no roadmap for navigating grief when you lose someone you care about. It’s a deeply painful and complicated process that we all handle in our own ways. It’s also an unavoidable part of life for most of us: We grieve late parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, and pets. We can even mourn the loss of celebrities we didn’t personally know.
Grieving doesn’t always start after someone dies, though. Sometimes the process begins beforehand, when, say, you find out your loved one has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, or as you watch your parents get older. Feeling a mix of overwhelming emotions when you know death is coming (and there’s nothing you can do to stop it) is totally natural—so much so that the experience has a name: anticipatory grief.
This type of grief is marked by feelings of sadness, helplessness, anxiety, anger, frustration, or guilt when you’re expecting a loss, and it can be an emotional roller coaster, Mekel Harris, PhD, licensed psychologist and author of Relaxing Into the Pain: My Journey Into Grief, tells SELF. “Even if the person is alive, there can be so many different losses,” Dr. Harris says. “There might be the loss of time spent together or the loss associated with not being able to do the same things that you used to.”
Watching one of your favorite people grapple with their mortality as you realize that your time with them is limited can be extremely difficult. Trying to stay positive under such devastating circumstances might even feel straight-up impossible. If you’re dealing with anticipatory grief, consider this expert advice that may make this seemingly hopeless situation feel a little less dire.
Don’t be afraid to call it grief.
You might have ideas about what grief is supposed to look like, but it can take many forms. You can grieve lost time, for example, or the end of a relationship. You can also mourn the loss of objects, like your favorite childhood stuffed animal or a family heirloom, and you can certainly grieve people who are still alive. Just because what you’re feeling doesn’t align with what society typically considers “normal,” it doesn’t make it any less real, Megan Devine, LPC, a Los Angeles–based therapist and the author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, tells SELF. “When nobody has died yet, people feel like they can’t call it grief,” Devine says. “But loss is a spectrum, whether it’s before or after someone dies, and it’s not helpful to qualify whether this is legitimate or not.”
You might be angry, sad, or anxious. Or maybe you’re in denial and not feeling much of anything. No matter your emotional state, the point is that your experience is valid: “You’re feeling what you’re feeling, and adding expectations can create a lot more suffering for ourselves when we’re also judging if we should be having such intense feelings or not,” Devine says. Accepting that your grief, however it shows up, is legitimate won’t necessarily make these feelings go away. But being honest with yourself—and having the words to name those very real emotions—is the first step in moving forward, she adds.
Recognize when you’re fixating on worst-case scenarios.
We, as humans, are generally not so good at dealing with things we can’t control. That’s one reason why so many of us (me!) will catastrophize an upsetting situation or imagine the worst-case scenario. You might visualize what your loved one’s death will look like, say, or spend each day worrying that it’ll be their last. It’s the brain’s subconscious effort to numb the emotional pain during high-stress situations, research shows, but the experts SELF spoke with say it’s also a form of self-sabotage. One study that surveyed people grieving the loss of a pet, for example, found that catastrophizing was associated with more grief, guilt, and anger compared to positive coping strategies, like practicing acceptance or shifting perspective.