Mar 1, 2002 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Dying and Preparatory Grief

Am Fam Physician. 2002 Mar 1;65(5):897-898.

What is preparatory grief?

Preparatory grief is the type of grief that people who are dying go through. They feel this grief as they go through the physical and emotional changes that are part of the dying process.

What happens during this process?

When people know they're going to die soon, they usually go through one or more of the five phases of the preparatory grief process. The phases may not occur in any certain order. People can skip phases or even be in more than one phase at a time.

  • Shock: During this phase, people are often in a state of shock. Their feelings go back and forth between agony and disbelief. They often feel that they are in a state of misery that isolates them from the world. Dealing with the bad news takes up most of their physical and emotional energy. They have very little energy or interest in day-to-day activities.

    Sympathy from loved ones is very healing. Talking to a doctor to learn more about the dying process can help.

  • Chaos: People often try to live their lives as they did before. They don't accept the limitations or the time constraints set by the disease. As the disease progresses, people slowly and painfully learn to accept the changes enforced by the disease. This process of constant change may cause uncertainty and anxiety.

    Setting realistic goals that they can accomplish can be helpful during this phase.

  • Introspection: As the disease progresses, people become weaker. Simple day-to-day tasks become harder to do. This can cause huge frustration. They look at their situation and try to understand what happened or what went wrong. They often ask “Why did this happen to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this illness?”

    During this phase, people balance the past with the future. People ask themselves, “How can I make the most of the time I have left?”

  • Re-adaptation: During this phase, people slowly start to re-adapt to their situation. They may even start focusing on the future. They may spend time looking at their entire life in this new context. They may think about things they want to accomplish before they die.

    It can help to understand that most pain and discomfort can be controlled. Patients should talk to their doctor about their fears.

  • Restitution: Sadness may become less intense as the people start to slowly accept and understand the dying process. Waves of grief and sorrow and even spells of denial or disbelief may be felt from time to time. Most people who are dying accept their fate. They may find new meaning in their life. With expert care and good support, the dying process is often very peaceful.

    Access to hospice or comfort care and a social support network are helpful.

What are the signs of depression in terminally ill people?

Feeling very sad and crying often is a very normal part of the dying process. However, feeling down or depressed most of the time is not normal. Thinking a lot about death or suicide and feeling guilty or worthless are often signs of depression. Depression is common in people who are dying and should be treated. Treating depression can greatly decrease suffering. People who think they might be depressed should contact their doctor.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions


Article Tools

  • Print page
  • Share this page
  • AFP CME Quiz

Information From Industry

Navigate this Article