Anticipatory Grief By Milly Daniels-Young

Today I read an article by the Harvard Business Review that recounted an online meeting their writers had. They discussed a nameless feeling they were sharing which someone suggested might be grief. A sort of global grief, grief for the loss of our way of life, the loss of connection and the fear of the grief that might be to come. They turned to grief expert and renowned author David Kessler. The rest of the article follows the questions posed to him and the answers he gives.

First Kessler talks about a grief for the loss of our way of life. I relate to this hugely; change has never sat well with me and something as massive as the changes we are undergoing now and the unknown length we have to endure them is frightening.

Next David talks about anticipatory grief and this is what I want to focus on in this article. Anticipatory grief is a feeling we get when we’re uncertain about what the future holds. Usually it centres on death. We feel it when someone gets a terminal diagnosis or when we have the unpleasant thought that we all lose a loved one someday. Unhealthy anticipatory grief is essentially anxiety.

You may be saying, how on earth can you grieve about the future, it’s not happened yet. Well put on your lab coats and bear with me as I get into the science of this. Impulsive feelings like anxiety, love or depression are all produced in the unconscious parts of your brain, basically the parts that evolved before consciousness evolved. It is called the primitive mind. So, while our conscious mind can grasp the concept of why a virus is dangerous, our primitive mind cannot. It is receiving signals from your consciousness that a bad thing is happening, but it cannot see it. The fight or flight response is being cued but we cannot resolve what is causing it (the virus and lockdown) and so the adrenaline has no where to be spent. This battle between our primitive mind and the modern world breaks our sense of safety. This brings everything full circle; the worries of the future create grief through the loss of safety. Although many individuals or family groups may have acutely experienced this before, this collective loss of global safety is new.

Now we are armed with this knowledge, we can tackle this better together. The 5 stages of grief are a well regarded and researched theory of responding to grief, lets apply them to COVID-19. Denial: a stage we all went through a few weeks back, “it won’t reach the UK, our healthcare is strong enough, it won’t affect me”.  Next comes anger, bargaining and sadness. I think this is where most of the country is sitting, in one of these 3 emotions and fluctuating between them. Anger at the theft of stable income, freedom and normality.Bargaining with the lockdown, saying if I’ve been isolated for two weeks its fine, I can go out again. Sadness: the feeling that this will never end or that we cannot cope. The hardest and most important step of grief is acceptance; knowing that this is happening, you cannot stop it but everything will be okay, and you will figure out how to go on.

Once we are aware of this, you can strive for that last stage, acceptance is control and control is power. You cannot control what your neighbours or the idiots in the park are doing, accepting that is power over your anxieties. You can keep your social distance and wash your hands, that’s your control.

Try to stay in the present moment, focus on the positives you have achieved, practice some mindfulness (I will talk about this another day). Don’t let your mind wondering into the future and imagine the worst. You cannot change anything by worrying about it, all you can do is be in the present. Keeping your mind out of the unknown future can reduce this anticipatory grief and the resulting anxiety.

However, don’t fool yourself that these emotions can be forced away and not felt. Feelings are exactly that, feel. They need to be felt to move on, really felt and understood. Discuss them, pull them apart, name them and then move on from them. Remember that feelings flow through you, they come and go; just like how happiness comes and goes as does anxieties if you allow them. Doing this can empower you to have control over your emotions.

Perhaps a positive to take away from this is the knowledge that you are not alone, this is after all a global grief, that is why it feels so massive. This means however that we can feel it and solve it together. Kessler talks of “stocking up on compassion, everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways.” Be patient with your family, friends and colleagues, check in on them and have a heart to heart.

The long and short of it:

· Some of our anxieties can be coming from grief

· Name and deal with the feelings

· Do not worry about what you cannot control

· Find power in what you can control

· We can’t ignore the feelings


That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. Berinato, S. (2020) Harvard Business Review.

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