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Anticipatory Grief of Emergency Visits to the Hospital

Anticipatory grief is a feeling of loss before a dreaded event or death occurs. I experienced anticipatory grief when my husband’s aorta dissected in 2013. Surgeons operated on him three times to staunch the blood loss. During the last surgery—13 hours, four surgeons—he suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his legs. Miraculously, my husband survived the surgery, and was hospitalized for eight months.

Finally, he was dismissed and moved into the wheelchair accessible townhome I built for us.

Although he tries to be independent, my husband needs lots of back-up care, and is susceptible to colds. Recently he developed asthma, and his breathing was so labored, I took him to the hospital Emergency Department. The medical team gave him oxygen, and assigned him to a hospital room.

I went home to a quiet house. When I walked in the door, the quiet hit me like a falling boulder.

If my husband died, this is the way it would be—a solitary, quiet, depressing place. Because I’ve studied anticipatory grief for years, felt it before, and written about it, I knew this was what I was feeling. Knowing I was experiencing anticipatory grief didn’t lessen its intensity.

After a day and a half in the hospital my husband was dismissed. He returned home, and we expected him to recover. He didn’t. In fact, his coughing became worse. A week passed, and during this time he coughed constantly and was very weak. I told him that he needed to go to the hospital, but he didn’t want to go. The next morning, when I walked into his bedroom, he was gasping for air, and obviously in trouble.

“We’re going to the hospital,” I declared.

The medical team gave him oxygen and ordered chest x-rays. The x-rays revealed pneumonia in his left lung, and he was hospitalized. Again, I returned home to a silent house, and felt intense anticipatory grief. I worried about my husband constantly. I worried so much I started to plan his memorial service, including readings and hymns. You may have had a similar experience.

We can’t let anticipatory grief take over our lives. These are the steps I took to contain my grief, and they may help you.   

  • Learn more about anticipatory grief and be on the lookout for it.
  • Take steps to lift your spirits. Listen to uplifting music, read a book, or go to a street fair.
  • Trust the health care team. Doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, nursing assistants, and social workers are well-trained, and have your loved one’s welfare at heart.
  • Stay in touch with family. I updated family members regularly on what was going on.
  • Accept help. Relatives who lived on the next block invited me over for pizza and we had a good meal and good conversation.
  • Don’t give in to negative thinking. When a negative thought comes to mind, counter it with a positive one.

Anticipatory grief isn’t all bad. According to some research findings, it can reduce the length of post-death grief. This troublesome form of grief may also help us to appreciate the miracle of life.

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About the Author

Harriet Hodgson has been an independent journalist for 35+ years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Association for Death Education and Counseling, Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support, and World Speakers Association. Hodgson is a Forum Moderator/Writer for and author of eight grief resources.

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