What is anticipatory grief?

A close friend’s husband has cancer. They’re saying maybe three, maybe four months.

And then there’s my sweet friend who lost her husband and young son to a sneaker wave. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Tragically.


Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

I’ve often thought, Oh, how lucky was I … because I had the gift of time.

With my husband’s terminal cancer, there was the gift of time to say everything we wanted to say to each other.

But there was also the uncertainty. How do you even begin to prepare for such an unimaginable loss?

You see it coming as you’re standing on the tracks, a freight train bearing down. But you’re frozen in place, mesmerized by the light.

And you know this rather large thing is going to hit you.

And you know it’s going to hurt. Significantly.

But you can do nothing to move off the tracks. Or to change the trajectory of the train.

How do you keep hope alive and yet balance it with realism?

How do you keep your thoughts gathered—the thoughts that are like a hand-typed manuscript of papers setting in the open window when a gust picks them up and flings them to the four winds—those scattered thoughts?

I remember saying to Gary—in an effort to balance hope with realism—“Wouldn’t it be fun to go to SunRiver for Christmas this year?”

He didn’t make it to Thanksgiving.

Derek Thompson wrote a piece titled “The Secret Life of Grief” that helped me understand what I was experiencing:

Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.

Thompson went on to explain what he meant:

To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing. 

It’s called anticipatory grief.

And it helped to be able to name my mess—to know that the uncertainty, the approaching freight train, the mesmerizing light is common among people watching a spouse, child, parent fade a little more with each passing day.

I got to exchange one hard traumatic blow for those thousand tiny pinpricks of pain as I slowly leaned into the inevitable, as I surrendered what I couldn’t control to God and allowed Him to envelop me in His peace with the knowledge that all would be well.

This thought from Nanea Hoffman:

Sometimes grief is a friend you wish you didn’t know but that you have to spend time with because love brought them along to the party. And the party was worth it.

The party was so worth it.

Call to action

For those whose loss is still painful, unhinging — take all the time you need to grieve. And when you’re ready to step back into life, you get to carry your loved one into that new life as you establish new friends and new loves and new adventures, leaving no one behind.

For those of us who still have our most prized, irreplaceable loved ones with us, how might we best spend the time with them … while there is still time?


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  1. Grace Lawson

    ” I surrendered what I couldn’t control to God and allowed Him to envelop me in His peace with the knowledge that all would be well”. You said this so very well Dear Marlys !!! God bless you richly. And this applies not only in death but in life in general. I am so glad that my faith is in Jesus !!!

  2. Krista M. DiMeglio

    This resonated deeply with me and put Into words feelings and thoughts I couldn’t even begin to express. Thank you Marlys for all your wisdom and for sharing your journey.

  3. Martha Bamford

    These were some timely thoughts for John and me. My sister passed away of cancer in December… and, John`s brother is in his last days as I’m writing this. His has been a long and heroic battle with Alzheimer`s. We are so grateful for time spent with both of them in these last years. We have no regrets and many, many good memories; lots of mixtures of emotions, but an underlying peace and gratefulness.

    • What a gift, Martha: “We have no regrets and many, many good memories; lots of mixtures of emotions, but an underlying peace and gratefulness.” Thank you.

  4. My lovely 95 year old mother has been in a nursing home for 21 months now. Yes, a thousand pin pricks of anticipatory grief as I keep my phone with me every moment of every day waiting for the call that tells me that she has gone home to heaven. What makes this bearable is knowing that she has a strong and abiding faith in Jesus and I will see her again someday. Her funeral, when it comes, will be a joyous celebration. Until then, I will continue to see her nearly everyday and do my best to make her smile. She is very, very dear to me.

    • Blessings to you in the wait, Janice: “Yes, a thousand pin pricks of anticipatory grief as I keep my phone with me every moment of every day waiting for the call …”

  5. P.S.

    This article speaks to what my husband and I are going through as we see our 43 year old son suffer from the disease of terminal brain cancer. We hope each and every day for seven years that God will heal our son. We see the disappointment he has that He has not. It has become more challenging this past year as the chemo has stopped working and just recently we found out that there is nothing else to try. Since his diagnosis, our son and his wife have had two sweet miracle children, a girl age 4 years and a boy age 15 months. We pray that God will use this somehow to bring others to Him. What other good could come from it? Is it merely a test of our faith? We understand how others going through similar situations struggle with these questions so much.

    • “We understand how others going through similar situations struggle …” You. Understand. You understand suffering, which makes you more compassionate, and gives you more to offer to those people. Blessings.

  6. Peter

    My ‘surrender to God what I can’t control’, was something I needed to do yesterday. Without detail, I was in such a state and I KNEW I should give it to God. A good friend helped me pray through the pain and gradually much of my anxiety dissipated, it doesn’t go because of our freedom to choose but He is always there by our side, whenever we need Him & I certainly feel blessed by His grace. Loved how you moved through your times of hurt and grief.. Thank you for your help, I’m sure many will be pleased to have read your words. God Bless, Bx P & family.

  7. Carroll Hooley

    This is what I am experiencing now…..my husband Steve, is in the later stages of dementia. He has days when he wants to get up & walk and days when we can’t wake him up. Most of the time he knows me, but sometimes, not. But he won’t hardly let me out of his sight. We live in an assisted living facility, so we have help as needed. God has used him here as a light to the helpers and residents. Many call him ‘Mr. Smiley’ as he usually flashes his beautiful smile to brighten everyone’s day. Yes, it’s lots of pinpricks as we watch him die a little bit every day, but God is faithful to help me through the rough times.

    • I’m so sorry to hear of your thousand tiny pinpricks, Carroll, but I remember his beautiful smile. Love and blessings to you during this challenging – but sweet – season.

  8. Kim

    My husband was diagnosed three years ago with metastatic prostate cancer and recently has had two very close calls with perforated stomach ulcers and sepsis and emergency middle of the night surgeries and in May he suffered a stroke. He fought to relearn to walk after the stroke and now we are back to fighting the cancer. Thousands of tiny pinpricks is exactly how it feels. Thank you for putting it into words.

    • Oh, Kim, I’m so sorry to hear about your husband and your suffering alongside him, for that’s exactly what we who love a terminal cancer patient do = suffer right alongside them.

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