What is this feeling of anticipatory grief?

Noemi J. Mullins

Social distancing. Flatten the curve. Shelter at home. We had no idea of these terms three months ago. They have become part of our daily lives. We have adopted this vocabulary to understand this extraordinary time we are living. This new vocabulary gives us vivid imagery to help us survive and protect ourselves against microscopic threats.

It is time to expand the lexicon of mental health into the realm of physical health. We are now facing an unprecedented crisis due to the novel coronavirus. A constant undercurrent of dread hovers over us. Even if we see the positives of quarantine, such as the slowing down and the chance to reconnect with our families loved ones, it’s still hard not to feel the “thing” beneath all this. What is it exactly?

It’s not one thing. It’s easy to label it “stress,” but it is multi-dimensional. It is crucial for our safety, health, and mental well-being to break it into smaller pieces. We aren’t “working from home”, but we are trying to adapt to a new worldview and work, learn, teach partners, parents, and much more amid a global crisis. We aren’t tired. We’re exhausted. We aren’t “waiting for things to return to normal”. We are obsessing over what “normal” will look like after this. What is the “after”?

Prolonged Uncertainty

We are dealing with Prolonged Incertity – the feeling that we not only feel uncertain but don’t know when it will end. If we don’t know when to lose our jobs, we wonder if we will be furloughed or face salary cuts. It was enough for a single mother earning $28K/year. What’s the future? What happens to those who are our main source of food and other resources? We long for the day when we can leave our homes and see our loved ones, return to our homes and live in the places that make our lives so interesting. We miss our favorite barista, hairdresser, and waiter, who remembers us always. We will never meet the person we chat with on Tinder or Hinge. Will businesses be reopened? Will our businesses close if we don’t provide enough support for the local restaurants we love? If this learning style doesn’t work for my child, can I still teach them? Is the news going to give us a break? Are we ever going to be able to stop being paralyzed by fear and anxiety?

Ambiguous Loss

This is a loss on an enormous, widespread scale. It’s not just “I had X, and it’s gone,” but Ambiguous loss, the feeling that so many intangible aspects of our lives have been lost that it’s difficult to identify what’s missing. My colleague Pauline Boss created this term to describe situations when a loved one has died mentally, but not physically. The Ambiguous Loss is cumulative. It is a loss in the way we live, the boundaries separating work, home, and school; our plans, weddings and trips; and a loss in safety and trust for our leaders. It is hard to understand what we are grieving because it is unclear. David Kessler, a grief expert, has described it as “the loss of normalcy; fear of economic toll; and the loss of connection” and said that this is something “we aren’t used to.”

Anticipatory Grief

Many of us grieve the loss of loved ones we can’t touch or be there for at the end. Heroic nurses and doctors have assumed an additional responsibility by facilitating video chats between patients’ families and their loved ones so that they can say goodbye. Sierra Campbell is a death doula who conducts funerals via Zoom. This may be the first time funerals can be rewatched. Others are also experiencing Anticipatory grief, the realization that we may lose loved ones. We are grieving the loss and isolation of any human contact for those of us who are alone in quarantine. People who have suffered from neglect or loneliness for too long feel the effects again, and they are losing faith in their ability to remain self-sufficient.


All these emotions are part of the umbrella term “Stress”. Dr. Elissa Epel is a stress scientist who is also Professor and Vice-Chair of adult psychology at UC San Francisco. She explains that stress is sadness, helplessness and despair. We know that the emotions that make up our Prolonged Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss, as well as Anticipatory Grief, are always searching for a home. Sometimes, we put our emotional burden on the people right next to us. We know this is not helpful.

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