Anticipatory Grief: The Journey of Grief Before Loss

The diagnosis of a life threatening illness. An accident resulting in the need for critical care. The effects of aging on the body. The slow creeping onset of dementia. Whether our own, or that of a loved one can all result in feelings of grief and the experience of its effects on our life.

Anticipatory Grief – the NORMAL reaction that can happen before a perceived or impending loss.

Why then do we feel ashamed, guilty, weak? We feel shame for thinking the “what if” thoughts, for imagining the loss before it happens. We feel guilt because grief before someone is gone looks like giving up, like not caring for, like not loving. We feel weak because to be strong would be to smile and carry on.

This grief is normal. It is allowed. It is no cause for shame or guilt. What if it were acknowledged, appreciated, embraced even? Embraced as a chance to consider the possibilities of the future so that we can wholeheartedly experience the now. Appreciated it for the opportunity offered for conscious decision making about how we want to be, act, speak, listen, love, in these present moments. Acknowledged to allow our energies to be better spent on what is, instead of pretending it is not.

We will all experience loss, it is part of living, loving and at some point leaving this life. Grief is part of the journey. Anticipatory grief is likely to be one of the steps along the way. Let’s not walk alone but together, being honest and open about grief, seeking to share the experience with awareness, care, compassion and love for ourselves and others.

Why Breathe?

Breath is life.

Often our breathing reflects our state of living. When our bodies are in a healthy state breathing is natural, automatic, the body breathes without us thinking about it. We don’t think, “I must take a breath now”. Yet the breath changes depending on our activity, our state of mind or emotions. When we are engaged in a sports activity our breathe can be more laboured. When anxious or worried we can feel choked, like we can’t get our breath.

What if breath was a tool? What if it were more than just an automatic bodily function or an activity ruled by physical exertion, thoughts and emotions?

If our breath reflects our thoughts and emotions, what if we could use our breath to manage our thoughts and emotions? Think about it.

As a child my beautiful daughter would come to me crying. Whether she had hurt her body, her heart was broken by a playmate, or because the robin’s egg had fallen from the nest, she came to me seeking solace, protection, help with her pain. She felt all these pains very deeply, her little body would be racked by sobs, her breath erratic, shallow, heaving, hiccupping. I soon learned there would be no treating the wound, with bandages, hugs, love, or conversation until she could settle down a little, find some calm. Breath was the tool, breath was the key. When she was very small I would gather her in my arms, when she got bigger I knelt in front of her or sat by her side. “Breathe” I would say. “I can’t” she often replied. “Okay, we will do it together, look at Mommy, breathe in, breathe out, just breathe”. It took as long as it took, but usually not very long, once the breathe became even, less shallow in the chest and deeper in the diaphragm, the heaving would stop, the body would calm and then, only then, could we start to deal with whatever the cause was. This practice has served us very well through the tumultuous teenage years to today when she calls, upset and hurt, we always start with, “okay sweetie, let’s take a breath, stop for a moment and breathe, breathe in, breathe out, just focus on breathing” until we can talk. The conversation usually ends with “thanks Mom, I can do it on my own, but it’s so much nicer when you do it with me”. Breath is the tool. Sometimes we can do it on our own. Sometimes we need a little help, guidance, a supportive safe space in which to breathe.

Breath can be a release. Anyone who knows me or works with me knows that I am a big believer in “the sigh” and I have learned to explain to folks not to be concerned by my sighs or take them personally. I find great release, relief in the long and sometimes a little louder than the “socially acceptable norm” expulsion of breath. It relieves my tension, it is a conscious act of letting go.

In yoga breathwork and working with the breath is part of the practice. As we practice various postures we learn to breathe into the posture to help our bodies lean into the pose. Breathwork, or pranayama is also a practice on its own. “Pranayama is control of breath”. “Prana” is breath or vital energy in the body. On subtle levels prana represents the pranic energy responsible for life or life force, and “ayama” means control. So Pranayama is “Control of Breath”.

When we can’t “catch our breath” or when breathing is impeded by illness we are frightened by the thought that we can’t breathe. Understanding our breath can be a really important tool in dealing with these thoughts.

Life threatening diseases often impact the breath. Breathing changes during the dying process. Not understanding these changes can cause observing or witnessing them in a loved one to be extremely upsetting.

Learning about breathing, exploring our breath, being able to breath into different areas of our body, being conscious about and aware of our breath can change the way we live, the way we die, the way we witness death in others and the way we experience and integrate our grief into living.

Breath is life.

Why Grieve?

Why put that front and center? Because it is! Grief and sadness are part of life, the other side of joy and happiness. Often they are the path on which we walk, the stepping stones towards even more meaningful, fulsome, wholehearted living.

So I put it front and center not as a promotion, but as permission. Permission to acknowledge it, see it and feel it. Permission to take the time to know our grief. To sit with it. Permission to not put on a “brave face” or a “stiff upper lip”. Permission to seek support, to find a place where we are held in a safe space for as long as we need.

In creating a safe space we build a container where our grief can be held with love, without fear, without judgement or shame. A space where we can gently unpack it, at our own pace, examining each piece to the degree we want or need to. Observing what comes up, keeping or discarding what we choose, building our way forward.

By inviting the lessons of our losses into our lives, by lovingly choosing what we keep and what we discard we are actively engaging in charting our course, in freeing ourselves from victim consciousness.

We acknowledge the sadness. We choose to be with it, rather than bury it. We find our resilience in allowing it to be part of us, part of our past our present and our future, part of our sadness, part of our joy. We allow ourselves to become all that we are and all that we can be. Happy and sad together. Each one a reflection of the other on our journey.


Recently I was sent on a short term assignment at work. Not a big change really. I go to the same building everyday, see many of the same people and while my responsibilities have changed the core mandate of the work I am doing is the same.

Yet I found myself feeling lost, not knowing what to do, or perhaps more clearly stated, not understanding my purpose in this new role and questioning my abilities.I felt unhappy going from a job I knew very well, in which I had the respect of my colleagues and peers, to a job where I was not the expert, where I often needed to ask for help and in which I felt less worthy of the respect of my colleague and peers. I was challenged to focus on a task and relieved as the day ended and I could head home, a familiar place where I feel comfortable, understand my roles and know what to do.

Observing how this little, short term, non life altering change had impacted me really got me thinking even more deeply and concretely about the impact grief and loss can have on our sense of who we are. The death of a loved one, mother, child, husband, dear friend cause us to reflect on “who am I” in light of this loss. Am I a daughter, wife, father…what do I look like with this change in my life? What is my role? The perspective of the stories in our lives changes. Our ability to envision the future is compromised.

Depending on the nature of the loss, the cause of the grief, our sense of self, the meaning of the things we do, the life we lead are brought into question. Our mourning of a loved one no longer being physically present in our life causes us to question how we see ourselves and the life we are living.

We may question our social roles – father, mother, husband, wife, sister, child…..

We may question our functional roles – employee, supervisor, coach, teacher….

We may question how we view our personality type – organized, cheerful, responsible….

Already unsettled by our grief the questions that come can make us feel even more uncertain, ungrounded. Looking for answers to our questions can feel scary and lonely.

Grieving and mourning are natural change enabling processes. Unfortunately in a world where we are judged by our appearance of strength rather than our willingness to be vulnerable. The temptation is to grasp onto any form of certainty rather than allowing ourselves to “be” in a space of uncertainty which could lead to authentic insight and creativity making space for our redefined self to unfold. To grow and learn from grief we need to get comfortable with “I don’t know”…..the space of “not knowing” is a space of great potential.

Natural as the process may be, it is not simple. Asking for help may be the hardest yet most helpful step towards creating space for moving through grief into growth.

Death Changes the Relationship, It Doesn’t Have to End

One of the hardest parts when someone dies is trying to “get over it”. What if we didn’t try to do that? What if we tried to get into it? What if we changed our vocabulary around grief. What if we found a way to rewrite the story of our relationship. Death does not have to be the end of a relationship.

In my life so far a good number of people I have known and loved have died. I have been sad and I have grieved. I have also found that over time, much like relationships with the living people in my life, some relationships with those who have died have continued to be part of my life,some I know will be with me forever and some have become memories of times gone by.

Continuing to have a relationship with people who have died during my life mostly happened organically until I began to study death, dying, grieving and bereavement over ten years ago. Over time I began to consciously look at my relationships with the people in my life who had died. I realized that many of them had not ended. That our relationship had been redefined. That having them in my life did not make me crazy, nor did it mean that I was not dealing with the “reality” of their death.

Well meaning friends and family encourage us to move on with our lives when a loved one has died. Does moving on mean we have to leave that person, that relationship, that love behind, in order for our life to move forward? I don’t think so. I think we have other choices, healthy choices, consciously made that integrate those relationships into our life, the one without their physical presence, the life we will need to redefine, lovingly, patiently at our own pace, in our own time, to get to a place of wholehearted living that re-members those relationships creating a continued bond.

In my grandmother’s presence I felt loved and accepted for who I was in that moment. She gave me the gift of unconditional love, quietly, gently and hugely. I was blessed with this gift for many years, she lived well into her nineties. When she died I was sad thinking that gift was gone. Today, I know the choice is mine. In remembering that presence, I can still find hope, love and strength by allowing that relationship to continue in my life.

Sometimes death brings an end to a relationship that was not so great. The idea of remembering a loving relationship in my life and redefining it after death was certainly easier than accepting that I can choose, without guilt or shame, not to include all relationships with the dead in my path forward. I can choose what to remember, what to reconstruct, what serves me well to moving forward.

These reflections, thoughts, choices, decisions when living with grief after death, loss, change, sometimes even change we hoped and wished for don’t lend themselves easily to casual conversations. Often the people who care the most about us are the least willing to be part of our process. They don’t want to see us sad, say anything that will make us sad, see us suffer. In society that is death averse rather than accepting of its natural place in the circle of life, sadness and grief are things to “get over”. Things not to be talked about before or after. Things shunned rather than embraced.

I love having my grandmother in my life. I don’t look forward to anyone experiencing sickness, pain, loss or death themselves or in the lives of those they love. I believe we can make a shift to a more compassionate, kinder relationship with death, dying, grief and bereavement. That we can open ourselves to an expansive experience rather than close and constrict. Let’s start the conversation.