Anticipatory Grief: Fearing The Loss Of A Beloved Pet
Contributing Author: Jennifer A. Rames
It seems like yesterday you brought home your new furry bundle of joy. They have been by your side through the rollercoaster of life, comforting you though trials and tribulations, being the listening ear as you work through difficult decisions, and celebrating your joys and excitements. Now, you have been told the ride is coming to an end and nothing can be done to stop the hands of time. This last stretch of track is the process of preparing to say goodbye to not only your pet but your family member.
The journey of grief begins the moment you find out your pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or perhaps when you begin to become aware of the physical and metal changes that accompany their aging. The anticipatory grief that comes before a pet’s death can be as emotionally crippling and as physically painful as what is experienced after they have passed. Anticipatory grief can come in a plethora of forms and is unique for everyone.
You may experience anxiety and fear over the days ahead. The decisions that will need to be made can be overwhelming. How will you handle the death? Are you making all the right decisions? What are they going to feel when they actually pass away? Will you have to make the final decision and if you do, will you be betraying your pet? Have you waited too long? Are you making the decision too early? Depression may set in due to the unknown of what it will be like without their very presence. The overwhelming sadness may provoke the desire to isolate yourself and you may find it difficult to complete even the most routine and simple everyday tasks. Numbness and shock may emerge, leading to denial. Like a child covering their eyes to become “invisible”, denial creates a similar mental barrier.
Denial is frequently merely a subconscious method to allow the information to be processed and create a temporary distraction from the pain. This defense mechanism can materialize as questioning of the original diagnosis, having a desire to seek out additional opinions or potentially shunning care all together. Frequently pursuit ensues to find a cause for the illness or aging, which can result in self-blame and guilt. This form of self torture can include beliefs, such as had signs of illness be noticed earlier, had better food been fed, had another veterinarian been consulted, had additional testing been allowed or requested, or simply had more been done, perhaps this all could have been avoided. The need to find someone to hold responsible can generate a feeling of anger. Furry may surge through you to the core at times, becoming frustrated there is nothing you can do and that there are no other options but to simply wait. This anger can be inadvertently directed towards friends, family, work colleagues, the veterinarian, or even complete strangers. You may find yourself making bargains with your pet, the universe or whatever higher power you may believe in, as you get closer to saying goodbye. Negotiation is common in an attempt to gain control over the situation or create a miracle with “what if’s” and “if only.”
You may feel desperate to do or say anything in an effort to spare your pet’s life and the need for you to make decisions concerning their life and their death. Uncertainty can strike when you begin to ponder how to explain to your children what the days ahead will bring. Finally, through the cycling of emotions experienced, acceptance often begins to shine through unannounced. Acceptance does not mean you are happy or won’t have moments when other emotions may surface. You begin to “live” again and embrace the time you have left with your pet. You may start to realize you can not change the past, you have no control over the diagnosis or the aging process, leading you to view the situation differently.
Not only is grief individual, impacting no two people exactly the same, but the emotions may also ebb and flow, like the waves of the ocean. Some days may be better than others for you just as much as they may be for your pet. The feelings and thoughts accompanying the anticipation of loss are all part of a normal grieving process. Last Wishes can help not only your pet but also the other pets and human family members.
You can help put your mind at ease by ensuring your pet does not suffer and is as comfortable as possible as their end of time nears. This can be achieved by instituting a plan in advance to prepare for the loss by consulting with Last Wishes about Hospice care. By allowing us to make a plan for your pet’s care in this time, we at Last Wishes can hopefully remove some of the anxiety as we help act as your compass through this difficult time. Hospice aims to meet the physical and mental needs of a pet faced with a life-limiting illness. It begins the moment a pet has been diagnosed with a terminal condition and the family has decided not to pursue aggressive, curative therapies. This care exists to provide support and care for patients in the last phases of an incurable disease, or at the natural end of life. Pet hospice focuses on caring, not curing. An individualized plan can be formulated based on a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s and family’s needs while taking into consideration the patient’s diagnosis, prognosis and available treatment options; the family’s values, beliefs and resources; and our hospice team’s philosophy and capabilities.
Last Wishes can also provide resources to help the entire family process the grief. There are multiple outlets of support including local and internet based support groups and private counseling. Last Wishes created an online Facebook Pet Loss Support Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/342444429251269/) where you can feel free you to share your pictures, memorials, poems, letters, questions and thoughts with other group members. There are pet loss bereavement websites and books for both adults and for children alike, many of which can be found on our website http://lastwishes.com/pet-loss-supportresources. You are not alone in your grief and it is important to find an outlet to process. Allowing yourself to grieve is an essential aspect of the healing and coping process.
Taking the time to cherish the time remaining with your pet and memorializing them can also help individuals navigate process through the grief process. Make videos of your pet doing what makes them happy as well as during their normal routine such as eating, sleeping, and interacting with you and your family. Take meaningful pictures of them and use these photos to create a photo journal or scrapbook. Try writing a letter to them, expressing your gratitude and love for them, sharing any emotions you may be experiencing in this difficult time and reflect on moments you have shared together. You can also create a bucket list for you and your pet to complete. There are numerous ways to capture the essence of your pet and also memorialize them. Examples of ways to memorialize your pet can be found at:
http://www.veterinarywisdompetparents.com/sites/default/files/resource_center/PDFs/Ways%20to%20Memorialize%20a%20Pet.pdf. The simple act of spending time with your pet adds to the memory box held within your own heart.
Anticipating your pet’s loss can certainly be difficult and painful. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to process your feelings. While it is never easy to say goodbye to your beloved pet, by acknowledging and embracing your emotions as well as allowing yourself to be happy as you reminisce and savor the happy moments with your pet, is critical in the healing process. Utilizing useful resources can help ensure your pet is as comfortable as possible at the end. These tools can also act as your aid to process through the grief with a little more ease. Anticipatory grief hurts, but your feelings are valid and you are certainly not alone.
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