Pet Loss and Anticipatory Grief:
Knowing the End Is Near
The sad and complex emotions of anticipatory grief begin when you know the end of life is near for your pet. Learn to recognize this “grief before grief” and ways to cope when you are in its throes.
"One of the hardest things you will have to do is grieve the loss of someone who is still alive." Unknown Source
Emotional Roller Coaster
A few years ago, I was caring for two cats who had terminal illnesses at the same time. Andy was dying from the multiple organ failure of old age and Eddie was losing his life to colon cancer.
Between veterinary appointments, treatments, giving them medicine and cleaning because they both had lost control of some body functions, I was on a roller coaster of emotions. Over the next three months many feelings would surface: sadness, helplessness, dread, and anger that I had not one, but two, of my beloved cats dying at once.
Some days I would be hopeful because they acted a little better. Other days I was at peace because I knew that I was doing everything I could to help them. Memories of the life we had shared would surface and I could smile.
My emotions, however, always came back to dread. I dreaded the veterinary appointments. Would this one be the last? I dreaded giving pills to my cats. I dreaded the messes I would find when I got up in the morning.
I dreaded the veterinary bills because the cost of their care was getting too expensive. At one point, I wished their suffering would end with natural deaths so I would not have to make the euthanasia decision, and then I berated myself for being so selfish.
I dreaded watching two regal cats wither with terminal conditions. Most of all I dreaded the deaths of two beloved companions and the heartache their deaths would bring me.
My feelings were all over the place and I was exhausted. I did not know then that this confusing roller coaster of emotions is called anticipatory grief—the grief before grief when we know the end is near. Eddie died first and Andy followed three weeks later.
It is painful to grieve for cherished companions while they are still alive but that is exactly what you do in the throes of anticipatory grief. Some of the most common emotions of anticipatory grief include sorrow, dread, fear, frustration, anger, regret and anxiety. You may have a need to distance yourself from the suffering, or find yourself in calm reflection, sorting out your beliefs about death and the afterlife.
Positive feelings can surface, too: a sense of peace that you had a wonderful relationship with your pet, and you know that you have done everything possible to extend your pet’s life; or relief that the end of suffering is near, followed by criticizing yourself for feeling relief.
Acceptance does not mean approval. You can hate the situation but love your pet and accept, with sadness, that death is unavoidable in the cycle of life. Within this turmoil, you may have moments when you are grateful for the gifts of love you have shared with your pet. It is important to understand that all these sad and complex emotions are normal.
Anticipatory grief helps you prepare for the end of life, but the extent to which you can prepare for your beloved pet’s death is unknown. You will also grieve after your pet's death because anticipatory grief does not prevent, accelerate, or slow the grief you feel after loss.
Because anticipatory grief becomes more intense as the death approaches, it is important to discuss euthanasia with your veterinarian and not delay the decision too long. You can also enlist the support of friends and family to comfort you without judgment at this difficult time.
Please be selective when sharing your pain with others. The last thing you need is someone to minimize your suffering with insensitive remarks. Sadly, some people do not understand the agony of pet loss.
Coping with Anticipatory Grief
Besides asking trusted friends and family members for support, here are a few more suggestions when you are feeling devastated by anticipatory grief.
Talk to your veterinarian now and decide if euthanasia is something you are willing to authorize as the end draws near.
Take this time to plan. As painful as it will be, planning for your pet’s inevitable death and care of the body afterward can give you a sense of control over the uncontrollable.
Make time for your pet outside of veterinary appointments, treatments, and medicine to gaze into his eyes, stroke his fur and tell him what he means to you.
Take pictures or videos if you think they will help you afterward but ask yourself if you really want to remember your pet looking this way.
Make plans but try to live in today. Your terminally ill or elderly pet will have good days and bad days—and so will you.
Some questions to consider:
Where will you say goodbye? If you are unable to be with your pet at the time of death, plan a loving goodbye at home.
Which friends or family members do you want with you, if any?
Do you want a small clipping of fur or a clay paw print for keepsakes?
How will you explain your pet’s death to your children?
Think about care of the body after death. Will you choose cremation, burial, or a keepsake urn?
In what ways can you honor and remember the one who brought you so much joy?
Let yourself off the hook for being human. It hurts to watch your pet’s decline when the end is near. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you are feeling. Know that at any given moment you are doing the best you can, even if your best does not feel adequate to you. If you did not love your pet, you would not care so much.
Be as kind to yourself as you are to your pet. It is natural to direct all your time and energy toward caring for your dying pet but failing to take a little time for yourself leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. Try to eat healthful foods and get enough sleep during this difficult time. Simple relaxation techniques can help. Caring for yourself gives you the strength to care for others.
Love Leaves a Memory
The emotions of anticipatory grief vary from person to person and fluctuate hour by hour, day by day. The anticipatory grief that you feel as you prepare to say goodbye to your beloved pet may cause complex emotions ranging from sorrow and anxiety to calm reflections on your relationship with your pet and the loving memories of your time together.
As with all grief, there is no right and wrong way to grieve and no one is ever fully prepared to say goodbye. It is human to feel overwhelmed at times. If you need support while traveling this rocky road of loss, please reach out to trusted friends and family members, use phone and online support, talk to your spiritual advisor, or consider seeking help from a professional counselor.
When two of my cherished companions died less than a month apart, this simple anonymous quote helped me. I hope it comforts you, too.
"Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal."
Sources | Related Reading
Lap of Love: How Will I Know It's Time?
DR 4 PETS: Anticipatory Grief. Facing the Storm
The Ralph Site: How to deal with anticipatory grief for a terminally ill or elderly pet
This is a good article but is best viewed on a desktop because of small print.
6 Ways to Make Your Home More Comfortable for a Senior Pet
Pet Loss Grief and the Holidays
Grieving the death of your pet is difficult any time of the year but it can be more painful in December when everyone else is celebrating. Go to Pet Loss: Grief Takes No Holiday for tips on coping during this stressful season.