Grief can begin before someone dies

When someone is ill for some time, their family and friends often begin to grieve their death before it happens. This is known as anticipatory grief.

While a lot of attention may be taken up with caring for a sick person in the family, it is common to think: “How will it be when they are not here? How will I cope on my own?”

Even when a death is expected, it may still feel like a great shock. This can be especially hard if the person has rallied again and again in the past, and you may have thought that they would always ‘pull through’ somehow.

Sometimes the experience of anticipating the death actually makes you become closer to the person, and you feel intense grief when they die.

On the other hand, sometimes people are surprised by how little they feel (or by feeling a sense of relief) when the person actually dies, and say that they have done much of their grieving already. This is also a normal response, and doesn’t mean they are denying their loss or that they did not really care for the person.

In some cases, people are not greatly affected by their loss at the time of the death, but find it harder as time passes, and they experience their loss in a delayed way. Again, this is quite common.

Cancer Council has a range of information may help prior to the death of a loved one. You can read this online at Living with advanced cancer, Understanding palliative care and Facing end of life. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to obtain copies of the related booklets, or download PDF versions from this page.

The person who is dying may also experience anticipatory grief as they process the fact that their life will end soon. They may find it worthwhile to talk about how they are feeling with someone on their palliative care team, to call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or to read Cancer Council’s information at Facing end of life.

This information was last reviewed in April 2017
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