Why We Need to Talk About Anticipatory Grief

One in fifteen people have made an attempt at suicide at some point in their lives and in the UK, someone dies by suicide every 2 hours.

What do you do when someone you care for is self-destructing right in front of your eyes?

Of course, you try to support them as best you can. But, at what point does it get that you can’t help them any longer? What do you do when you’ve given them every helpline phone number, recommended a hundred counsellors, been a shoulder to cry on time and time again; but the individual still can’t fight through their demons?

Eventually, all of this takes its toll on the person that is trying to help them. We all have our own mental health to consider and continuously trying to help someone to no avail is a slippery slope for your own stability and security. You cannot realistically be a supportive friend, family member or colleague if you yourself are not in the healthiest of places mentally. But once you hit that limit of counsel, advice and emotional bolstering you can give, where does that leave you?

There is lots of research into the effect of grief when someone dies by suicide but what about understanding how supporting someone that is suicidal affects our mental health?

Google searches into this topic would generally take you to how to help the suicidal person, as after all, the search engine sees the critical word suicide and prioritises the resources, services and tools available for the person at risk of taking their own life. If you delve deeper though, you come across something called ‘Anticipatory Grief’.

Anticipatory Grief is grieving someone that is still alive. As Alzheimer’s Society comments, it’s grief that is brought upon by “thinking ahead to things that may happen”. It is generally something associated with caring for someone who has a terminal illness, being aware of what might eventually happen and reacting emotionally beforehand. In addition to the typical symptoms of grief – sadness, fear, tearfulness, anxiety, sleeping problems, anger – Ellen Daly, BACP Accredited Counsellor, advises that there can be other conflicting manifestations, like feeling stretched to breaking point but also avoiding “freezing” your own life. It’s also common to find yourself living in a constant state of uncertainty, infiltrating your decision making for unrelated actions.

Due to its association with terminal illness, one of the most suggested coping strategies is to allow yourself to grieve. But in the context of mental health, how can you allow yourself to grieve for someone who you have been trying your hardest to help? If you’ve been committing endless energy into making sure you don’t lose this person, how do you consolidate the idea that you’ll have to adapt to a life without them, despite all the effort?

The best advice we can pass on is don’t be too hard on yourself. You can do your best and that is all. Just because someone may be in a worse state of being than you are doesn’t mean that you can’t go and get help for yourself as well. You are not supposed to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of trying to be there for someone else, especially if you are not a mental health professional. Ellen Daly explains that anticipatory grief does typically come with “coping” stages where, as with typical post-loss grief, you are able to continue with normal life due to a level of processing or a temporary numbness; therefore, this is not a continually debilitating condition. It does however require support. After all, when we grieve normally, we do so with other people who loved the deceased person. We share our pain and help each other through the process of learning to live without them. Anticipatory grief requires just as much of a support system, and we need to ensure we’re putting these vital structures in place.

Anticipatory grief is something that seriously needs considered when we are thinking of the mental health of the family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of those who are contemplating suicide. As a society, we must be empathetic and supportive to those fighting their demons, of course, but we also mustn’t forget about our own well-being and mental health along the way. Understanding how anticipatory grief can manifest itself is a key tool for practitioners working in the mental health sector, as it allows them to better support the loved ones of the suicidal individual, as well as the individual themselves. After all, no person is an island. We all have people who we care about and who care about us. Therefore, if someone is feeling suicidal and going through such a negative and dark mental thought process; their loved ones will be feeling the side effects of it too. We need to ensure that across social work we are developing a better understanding of anticipatory grief, and not just with the families and friends of someone who is critically ill. Mental illness is just as traumatising and places such a strain on the loved ones of a suicidal person, making anticipatory grief a legitimate and natural experience for many.

Contributed by Becca Dawrant, One Stop Social Team. 

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One Stop Social have a whole range of helpful guides, booklets, tools and more in our Resources Page which can help develop good practice when working with people who are suicidal. If you want further support as a practitioner then get in touch and see how else we can help!

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