Grieving Before a Loved One Dies: A Real, but Overlooked Syndrome

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

March 29, 2022

When an individual develops a terminal illness, those closest to them often start to grieve long before the person die. Although a common syndrome, it often goes unrecognized and unaddressed.

A new review proposes a way of defining this specific type of grief in the hope that better, more precise descriptive categories will inform therapeutic interventions to help those facing a life-changing loss.

It is "vital" to reduce pre-death grief, inasmuch as numerous studies show that it can result in higher rates of prolonged grief disorder, lead author Jonathan Singer, PhD, visiting assistant professor of clinical psychology, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, told Medscape Medical News.

"We proposed the overarching term 'pre-death grief,' with the two separate constructs under pre-death grief ― anticipatory grief [AG] and illness-related grief [IRG]," he said. "These definitions provide the field with uniform constructs to advance the study of grief before the death of an individual with a life-limiting illness.

"Research examining grief experienced by family members prior to an individual's death to a life-limiting illness revealed wide variation in the terminology used and characterization of such grief across studies,"

The study was published online February 23 in Palliative Medicine.

"Typical" vs "Impairing" Grief

"Most deaths worldwide are attributed to a chronic or life-limiting Illness," the authors write. The experience of grief before the loss of a family member "has been studied frequently, but there have been conceptualization issues, which is problematic, as it hinders the potential advancement of the field in differentiating typical grief from more impairing grief before the death," Singer said. "Further complicating the picture is the sheer number of terms used to describe grief before death."

Singer said that when he started conducting research in this field, he "realized someone had to combine the articles that have been published in order to create definitions that will advance the field, so risk and protective factors could be identified and interventions could be tested."

For the current study, the investigators searched six databases to find research that "evaluated family members' or friends' grief related to an individual currently living with a life-limiting illness." They excluded studies that evaluated grief after death.

Of 9568 records reviewed, the researchers selected 134 full-text articles that met inclusion criteria. Most studies (57.46%) were quantitative; 23.88% were qualitative, and 17.91% used mixed methods. Most studies were retrospective, although 14.93% were prospective, and 3% included both prospective and retrospective analyses.

Most participants reported that the family member/friend was diagnosed either with "late-stage dementia" or "advanced cancer." The majority (58%) were adult children of the individual with the illness, followed by spouses/partners (28.1%) and other relatives/friends (13.9%) in studies that reported the relationship to the participant and the person with the illness.

Various scales were used in the studies to measure grief, particularly the Marwit-Meuser-Caregiver Grief Inventory (n = 28), the Anticipatory Grief Scale (n = 18), and the Prolonged Grief–12 (n = 13).

A New Name

Owing to the large number of articles included in the review, the researchers limited the analysis to those in which a given term was used in ≥1 articles.

The researchers found 18 different terms used by family members/friends of individuals with life-limiting illness to describe grief, including AG (used in the most studies, n = 54); pre-death grief (n = 18), grief (n = 12), pre-loss grief (n = 6), caregiver grief (n = 5), and anticipatory mourning (n = 4). These 18 terms were associated with ≥30 different definitions across all of the various studies.

"Definitions of these terms differed drastically," and many studies used the term AG without defining it.

Nineteen studies used multiple terms within a single article, and the terms were "used interchangeably, with the same definition applied," the researchers report.

For example, one study defined AG as "the process associated with grieving the eventual loss of a family member in advance of their inevitable death," while another defined AG as "a series of losses based on a loved one's progression of cognitive and physical decline."

On the basis of this analysis, the researchers chose the term "pre-death grief," which encompasses IRG and AG.

Singer explained that IRG is "present-oriented" and involves the "longing and yearning for the family member to be as they were before the illness." AG is "future oriented" and is defined as "family members' grief experience while the person with the life-limiting illness is alive but that is focused on feared or anticipated losses that will occur after the person's death."

The study was intended "to advance the field and provide the knowledge and definitions in order to create and test an evidence-based intervention," Singer said.

He pointed to interventions (eg, behavioral activation; meaning-centered grief therapy) that could be tested to reduce pre-death grief or specific interventions that focus on addressing IRG or AG. "For example, cognitive behavior therapy might be used to challenge worry about life without the person, which would be classified as AG."

Singer feels it is "vital" to reduce pre-death grief, insofar as numerous studies have shown that high rates of pre-death grief "result in higher rates of prolonged grief disorder."

"Paradoxical Reality"

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Francesca Falzarano, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, called the article a "timely piece drawing much-needed attention to an all-too-often overlooked experience lived by those affected by terminal illnesses."

Falzarano, who was not involved in the review, said that "from her own experience" as both a caregiver and behavioral scientist conducting research in this area, the concept of pre-death grief is a paradoxical reality — "how do we grieve someone we haven't lost yet?"

The experience of pre-death grief is "quite distinct from grief after bereavement" because there is no end date. Rather, the person "cycles back and forth between preparing themselves for an impending death while also attending to whatever is happening in the current moment." It's also "unique in that both patients and caregivers individually and collectively grieve losses over the course of the illness," she noted.

"We as researchers absolutely need to focus our attention on achieving consensus on an appropriate definition for pre-death grief that adequately encompasses its complexity and multidimensionality," she said.

The authors and Falzarano report no relevant financial relationships.

Palliat Med. Published online February 23, 2022. Abstract

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