Is there a difference when a loss is sudden versus anticipatory?

For ten years, I facilitated a younger widow(er) group in Denver.  Each month we welcomed new members to a group they did not want to join yet voluntarily attended in an effort to make sense of their loss.  As I listened to the attendees share their stories, I learned that while their loss journeys were varied, the outcome was similar. Whether a sudden or anticipatory loss, the group lost their loved one and their perceived future together.

A story of sudden loss

Rod passed away suddenly without warning.  He left the office conversing with his colleagues as they entered the parking structure of the office building.  One minute he was talking and the next minute he was on the ground fighting for his life while his co-workers performed CPR.  At 32 years old he suffered from arrhythmia and within a minute, he was gone.  The shock of receiving the telephone call from his company about the horrendous life changing news of his sudden, untimely death dropped me to my knees while holding in my arms our 2-year-old daughter.

I had so many questions that I wanted answered – some were associated with the timeline and details of what occurred in the parking structure while others were more personal.  How would I raise my daughter without her father? How would I survive being alone? Did he mail our tax return on the way to the office as he passed away on April 14? I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine bouncing from bumper to bumper.  If only I could have said goodbye, if only I could ask him a few questions, if only I could hold him one more time and feel his warmth all over me.  But I couldn’t do any of that – instead I was greeted at the hospital by the site of my husband laying on a gurney which would be the lasting, eternal visual of my special Rod.

I spent years trying to come to peace with the fact that Rod’s death was sudden and that I was not able to share the experience of his last breath with him or to say goodbye. I wanted to hear him say he loved me one more time and that I will be a great mom to our special baby girl.  My sadness and shock stood in the way of me knowing that he loved me and that Gretchen and I would be “okay.” Even knowing that his death was of natural causes and not a sudden loss due to negligence couldn’t help me wrap my arms around the fact that in one moment he was gone.

In my shock, I found myself walking in circles obsessing over items that I thought needed attention at the time – are the bills paid (not that I really cared), what personal items does Rod have at his office, where is his car and what do I tell Gretchen. Holy Shit, how could he love me and leave me on the same day?

As the days turned to months and the shock found its way to reality I searched for my truths, acknowledging no matter what I wanted and no matter what I hoped for, I was not turning back time saying goodbye to Rod the way I envisioned as a two-way conversation. Desperately wanting a bit of normalcy in my life, I began shifting my emotions and energy to know in my heart that Rod did not suffer when he passed and he did say goodbye.  His words were felt in my heart rather than hearing them with my ears.

A story of anticipatory loss

Several years ago, on a cold December day I received a telephone call from a dear friend asking me to meet her in front of the University of Colorado hospital main entrance. When I arrived, I found her outside sitting on a bench in shock, trying to find her words to describe what she just experienced.  Inside the hospital, the doctor had shared her husband’s diagnosis of an aggressive form of cancer.  She heard him say that the life expectancy was less than 2 years.  I sat on the bench listening to her words as she purged so many emotions plagued by shock, fear and helplessness.

So many questions.  What will her next 2 years look like?  How would she tell her 5-year-old son his dad was dying?  Will she be strong enough to watch her husband deteriorate?  How would she juggle caregiving, parenting, working and taking care of the household?

Over the next 18 months we all watched from the sidelines, helping in any way we possibly could – providing meals, helping with child care, driving her husband to chemotherapy treatments, mowing the lawn and providing any support we could.  Of course, these were logistical tasks which helped reduce her daily stress.

Watching my friend embrace her predicament was heartwarming to me. She tackled the situation with strength, honor, commitment and true love.  Wednesdays were treatment days, so they became weekday pizza and movie night as dad was too tired to engage with the family.  Plans for the future were discussed: to move or not to move, what maintenance is needed around the house, what is their son’s future educational plan, will they need a new car, and sort through personal belongings. But most importantly they cherished every minute of every day knowing that today could be the last day – the hugs, the gestures of connection and saying/hearing “I love you.”

Of course, that is the affirmative aspect of anticipatory loss.  What about watching your loved one deteriorate physically and mentally? What about hearing well-meant comments from friends and family who truly mean well but fumble their words? What about trying to imagine as the survivor what the future could look like?  On top of all that you shut out the world around you as you want to be with your loved one in your personal space, which in turn creates more loneliness.

Then the day arrives. Yes, you were there for the last breath; yes, you heard “I love you” one more time; and yes, you felt the warm blood circulating.  But in the end, your loved one was physically gone creating the next chapter of your personal journey of loss.


For survivors, is there a difference between sudden loss and anticipatory loss? Of course there is; however, in the end the outcome is similar. Both have their challenges, heartaches, empty beds, only parent responsibilities and loneliness. And each survivor will search for clarity in saying goodbye to their loved one.

Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and consultant who provides encouragement to individuals or workgroups who are suffering a loss or setback. She is the author of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time and Grief in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide for Being Prepared and Living with Loss, One Day at a Time. Both are available on or

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