Pet Loss Anticipatory Grief: Ideas for Coping

Healing Pet Grief

For pet lovers, there are probably few things harder than caring for a cherished dog or cat, knowing that death is near. It takes incredible courage and deep love to be there for your pet while anticipating the grief that is sure to follow.  

If you have just been told your animal has an incurable illness, a life-threatening injury, or you can see that pain and disability are only getting worse, you may be overwhelmed with emotions and questions. This is a time of shock and doubt (maybe the diagnosis is wrong), uncertainty (maybe if I try a different diet or see another vet), hope (she seems to be a little better today), and an array of emotional ups and downs.

You may have lots of questions about your pet’s condition. Are there any treatments or medications that can slow down the progression? If so, what are possible side effects? What is the prognosis?  What can I expect down the road? 

When vet visits, diagnostic tests, and medical treatments have reached their limit and the only options available to your pet now are love and comfort care, you will probably still have questions. But they will have changed. You have had to surrender to the painful reality that your pet cannot heal, will not get better. Instead of asking about testing and treatments, you may want to know how much more time you can hope for. What will her quality of life be? How will you know if she is in pain and how can you keep her comfortable?  And the hardest question of all: How will you know when it’s time to say goodbye?

Anticipatory grieving is what we feel knowing our loved one will die soon. We may experience many of the emotions and stages of grief, even while our pet is still alive. As your animal nears the end of life, it’s normal to feel, in any order, shock, denial, fear, anxiety, anger, intense sadness, and even acceptance. You may also be exhausted if your pet wakes you up multiple times during the night, you are frequently cleaning up accidents, or you find it stressful or difficult to physically care for your pet.  

During this period, you may also be grieving for all that once was, even though your animal is still alive. Your dog who used to love to run on the beach and chase a frisbee now walks slowly and painfully. Your cat is not able to jump onto your lap or the bed anymore without help. This time is incredibly painful for those of us who think of our pet as our baby, our best friend, and a close family member.   

Know that you have a right to any and all of your feelings. You don’t have to hold them inside because your pet is still alive. You are going to lose someone you love deeply and who has been a huge part of your life. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or should not be feeling. It’s incredibly hard to be there for a loved one who is dying. I once heard a wise teacher talking about death and dying who described this period of anticipatory grief as, “keeping your heart open in hell.”

Because you may be emotionally drained and physically exhausted, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. Is there a way you can rest during the day if your sleep is interrupted? What can you eat that is nutritious and easy to get down? What are ways for you to find some inner calm if you are scared, angry or anxious? Who can you call for support or help?

This can also be a time to spoil your pet, express your love, and lessen any regrets. If you feel guilty because you were too busy to spend much time with your animal, do it now. If it feels right, let your pet sleep with you or lie on the furniture. If their health allows, feed them yummy homemade meals they would love. Go to some favorite places together. Tell your pet how much you love him, as many times as you want. If your pet could have a bucket list, what would be on it?

Having time with your pet towards the end of her life gives you the opportunity to plan ahead, as painful as it will be. This is so important so you won’t have to be in a panic or make end of life decisions you may regret later. If euthanasia has been discussed, talk to your vet about your feelings and concerns. Will your vet advocate for you and your pet and help you know when it’s time?

You may find some helpful information in this article from American Humane.

Who can administer the end of life medications? Would you want someone to euthanize your pet at your home or in a clinic? This article is being written during Covid-19 and vet clinics and mobile vets have their own protocols now to protect everyone. Even though it’s so painful to talk about, you may want to call places ahead of time so you will know what to expect. Who do you want with you during your pet’s last moments?

Another important decision involves what to do with the body after death. Would you want your dog or cat cremated? If so, do you want an individual cremation and the ashes returned to you? Would you rather bury your animal in your yard or garden?

Although all of these topics are heart-breaking, you may eventually be relieved that you thought about them in advance. It’s difficult to think clearly during a highly emotional time, so it can be helpful to write up a plan with names and phone numbers.

The most important thing of all during this time of anticipatory grieving is to reach out for support. Talk to your family and friends about what you’re going through if they are understanding and supportive. There are online groups and Facebook pages you can participate in. I offer pet loss grief support for people whose animals are at the end of their lives.

Please contact me if you would like to talk. You don’t have to go through this alone.

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