Is it possible to grieve for something before you’ve lost it? A question I was mulling over recently after talking to a coaching client.
The answer is yes. It even has a name: Anticipatory Grief or Preparatory Grief. Many of us have experienced it but until recently I didn’t know there was a name for it.
It can be triggered when you know change is coming. It is the distress you may feel before a loss, based on what you believe you will lose.
It is a phenomenon most commonly seen in cases of progressive and terminal illness, when patients’ carers and loved ones know that a bereavement is coming. It was first noted by Erich Lindemann, a psychiatrist in the 1940s who saw how loved ones of soldiers leaving for World War 2 were affected.
You can also experience it when you know a relationship is coming to an end and that you are heading towards a separation or divorce and that life will be changing in a significant way.
But what about in the working world? Dealing with change in our professional lives has some similarities.
When change happens that we have no control over, such as a redundancy, the shock factor can be huge, but in many cases the change then happens quickly, not leaving much time for anticipatory grief.
More likely, a planned change that you initiate such as resigning from a job or knowing you plan to negotiate your exit at a particular point will trigger anticipatory grief. It is also likely when you are heading towards your retirement.
You may find yourself processing the anticipated loss of your routine, your day-to-day work relationships and in some cases your identity when work is a big part of who you are. Many people struggle to talk about who they are without saying what they do and where they do it. I have seen this numerous times when working with leaders on their Elevator Pitch.
Added complexities can come from:
An ambiguous timescale e.g. ‘at some point next year’ there will be a merger or company sale which will likely mean a leadership change, but the exact plans are still to be confirmed,
A confidential situation where you are part of the team leading the change and unable to talk openly about it but will be personally affected.
Emotions you might feel when experiencing anticipatory grief include:
- Guilt sadness
Just like with the grief cycle, you are unlikely to experience these emotions in neat stages. Some may affect you more than others. You may have conflicting emotions. You may move quickly from one to another.
Serena Williams recently wrote about her struggles with the thought of transitioning away from professional tennis (she prefers not to call it retirement) in Vogue, and I think she captures brilliantly the concept of anticipatory grief and its complexities.
“There is no happiness in this topic for me. I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not.”
So how can you support yourself if you are anticipating change and are already grieving?
1. Be kind to yourself. Just because you are dealing with a ‘work’ thing not a ‘death’ thing, don’t belittle it. Yes, there may be people worse off than you, but it is still important to process the change. Listen to your inner voice and the language you are using. Are you treating yourself like you would treat someone you care about?
2. Talk to someone that you trust. Use your support system, perhaps someone you know has gone through something similar and you could reach out to them. If you don’t have anyone suitable consider investing in a coach. They will keep everything confidential and be a safe sounding board for you.
3. Prioritise self-care and non-work activities. This seems to be one of the things leaders are worst at. They are so busy working and looking after everyone else, they put themselves to the bottom of the list. It isn’t selfish to invest some time in yourself, it is vital. What else do you enjoy or care about apart from work? How could you increase the time you spend doing it?
4. Reflect about what is important to you next. Dedicate time to get clear on your objectives for the next stage, whether this is about securing a new role externally, moving to a portfolio career or towards retirement with some voluntary work. Do this in advance of the change and start putting plans in place so you can get to action when the time is right for you.
5. Write down your thoughts and feelings. This isn’t something many of us would naturally do, but it is really helpful. No one else needs to see it, just write what is going through your head. Name the emotions you are experiencing. Acknowledge what is happening and it will help you process it.
6. Ask for help if you are struggling. Significant change at work is a big deal. Especially if you are someone who has worked a lot, for a long time, and what you do has morphed into who you are, it is a genuine loss not having this identity anymore. Don’t keep it to yourself.
If you are looking for a coach to support you through a career change, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.