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Understanding Anticipatory Grief When Saying Goodbye to Your Pet

Finding out that your pet has a terminal diagnosis is a devastating moment, and processing this information can be just as hard as saying goodbye. Many times, pet owners experience what’s called anticipatory grief, which is the feeling of impending loss that occurs before you actually say goodbye to a loved one.

In this post, we’ll explore what anticipatory grief is, how to cope with it, and steps you can take to prepare for your pet’s passing.

Experiencing Anticipatory Grief

Everyone’s personal experience with grief is unique and you may find that your own experience with grief is varied for different pets or loved ones. Try not to compare your feelings to other family members or to your own experiences with other losses. 

It is normal to work through the five stages of grief before and after we say goodbye to our pets. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages of grief are not linear, so it is also normal to bounce back and forth between stages or to feel multiple stages at the same time. 

Image credit: Better Place Forests

Anticipatory grief is a component of grief that is less-discussed, but is at the top of our minds with the recent diagnosis of end-stage cancer of our hospital kitty Mabel. Our pets have the benefit of not knowing they are sick, so the burden of that knowledge falls onto us as their caretakers. It can be difficult to enjoy the time we have left when we also feel like the end is looming.

Anticipatory grief can be tricky because sometimes it is accompanied by the guilt that we are not enjoying the time we have. This complex interaction of emotions is completely normal when trying to work through a terminal diagnosis. Some people find that they are hypervigilant and start to overthink every behavior or symptom, for example. Just acknowledging that this is happening, and that this is a common response can be helpful. 

Depending on the timeline of your pet’s diagnosis, anticipatory grief can last a few days or even come in waves over the course of a few years. 

Coping with Anticipatory Grief

One of the best ways to cope with anticipatory grief is to take things one day at a time and really try to be present. It can be helpful to actively remind yourself to really focus on your pet. For example, if you are sitting on the couch with your pet, set your phone down or turn the TV off and just hang out with them. Pet them and experience their presence. Think about how you are grateful for that time and how you will remember these good moments. It can also be helpful to take photos of your pet that you can scroll through later, print/hang up, or put into an album.

It can be therapeutic to reach out to important people in your pet’s life and let them know about the diagnosis. People want to support their friends and family and it also draws people closer when we share news like this with them. You may also get surprised by a funny memory or photo that you didn’t even know your friend or past roommate carried with them.

Prepare for Your Pet’s Passing

When we experience anticipatory grief, we may not want to think about our pet passing or about the necessary arrangements that will need to be made. However, preparing ahead of time can be a great way to ensure your sole focus is on the well-being of your pet in their final days. There are several things you can do to prepare. 

Decide How to Monitor Their Quality of Life

This article contains a Quality of Life scale, which we recommend doing periodically to help make a subjective decision slightly more objective. As our pet’s symptoms progress, it can be incredibly difficult to know when euthanasia is the most humane option. The Quality of Life scale can help you make the decision that’s best for your pet. 

You may also find it is helpful to keep a log of certain symptoms to track their progression. We are always here for you to discuss your pet’s quality of life–we also offer telemedicine appointments if it is stressful or difficult to bring your sick pet in for an exam.

Honor Your Pet Before and After Their Passing

There are many ways to honor a pet before and after their passing. An Animal Death Doula can be a great support to help guide the transition toward end-of-life and can help come up with ways to honor your pet that are meaningful to you.

Some people like to make artwork, donate to an animal-related cause, have a gathering of friends to talk about your pet, or make jewelry or household items using their pet’s fur or whiskers. In honor of our hospital kitty Mabel, we’ve given our staff photos and craft supplies to create a homemade magazine remembering her. 

Make a Plan for Comfort Care

Whether it’s coming up with a palliative care comfort plan or euthanasia, talk to your veterinarian about how to maximize comfort for your pet at each stage, and understand what services your veterinarian provides for end-of-life care. 

At Art City Vets, it is an incredible privilege for us to be part of the process of saying goodbye and it is extremely important to every single member of our staff to make it as comfortable as possible for both the pet and the family. We all care deeply about making this difficult process as filled with love, warmth, and safety as it can be. 

Many people worry about scheduling a euthanasia appointment in advance, but we understand that this decision is often not apparent until shortly before it is time. We always do our best to accommodate same-day euthanasia so that it can be as peaceful as possible. We will also arrange cremation services on your behalf.

Check Out Resources for Anticipatory Grief and End-of-Life Care

In addition to what we can provide at ACV, there are other options available in the greater Philly area: 

Mount Laurel Animal Hospital has a Virtual Pet Loss Support Group

Lap of Love is a great resource that provides hospice and euthanasia services in your home. 

Dear Pet Memorial Park is located in Bensalem PA and will do pick up/drop off service for pets who pass away at home. They offer cremation and also have extensive memorial options beyond that including pet burial, shadow boxes, jewelry, and urns. 

Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd offers burial, cremation, other memorials, and is the only aftercare service in the area that offers Aquamation for pets. 

As always, if you are concerned about your own emotions, reach out to your doctor or other health professional. There are many pet grief support resources available:

There is free pet loss chat support run by the Associate for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB)

The Ohio State vet school has a great handout about talking to kids about pet loss. 

Metropolitan Vet Associates has an online pet loss support group that meets monthly. 

Written by Dr. Morgan Shafer

Associate Veterinarian at Art City Vets

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