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Coping with Anticipatory Grief as A Pet Owner

An older Golden Retriever dog is laying on a wooden surface, it's head down between it's legs in a way that gives off the impression of being sad.

We all want our best friends to live forever. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that the lifespan of most pets is shorter than that of us humans. We associate the word ‘grief’ with the emotions that come after the loss of a loved one, but what about that moment when you realize that your adorable puppy or kitten is now in their senior years? Let’s have a talk about the reality of coping with anticipatory grief…

If you have ever truly loved a pet (and I am assuming you have or currently do if you’re reading this), then you know just how quickly they become an important part of your life.

According to a Harris Poll, 95% of pet owners in the United States consider their pet to be part of the family, which (I would guess) would also hold true at approximately the same rate here in Canada!

It’s a significant shift in the way that pets are seen in our society. At one time in history, pets were more of a ‘belonging’, something that was owned with a specific purpose in many cases. This included guard dogs, dogs, and cats to catch and eliminate rodents, hunting dogs/retrievers, etc.

While dogs still play an important role in many industries today, more families than ever have welcomed a pet into the home as a companion. They are our best friends and therapists, comforting us in times of trouble and joining us on our adventures.

There is only one downside to this new role… Our pets have shorter lifespans than the average human, which means that welcoming a pet into your life means signing up for the grief that comes with loss.

Related: ‘10 Must-Have Products for Senior Dogs

However, there is one form of grief that no one really talks about, and that is anticipatory grief. This refers to the emotions and struggles that a pet owner experiences when they realize that their pet’s time here may be ending in the near future.

This could be triggered by the realization that your pet has entered its senior years, the diagnosis of a terminal illness or the discovery of a potentially life-threatening condition.

“Anticipatory grief is the normal mourning process that occurs when your loved one is still living, and you are expecting his or her death.”

Staci metzger, msw

If you are a regular reader here on Shed Happens or follow our social media channels, then you know that I am the proud dog mom to a senior dog.

My girl Daviana turned 13 in February 2021, which brought with it a wave of emotions. Why? The average life expectancy of a German Shepherd Dog, according to the American Kennel Club, is 12 to 14 years.  

She is still a high-energy pup with no major signs of illness. In fact, she is often mistaken for being much younger.

Regardless of how young she looks and acts, there is still that nagging thought in the back of my mind that our time together is limited. It’s a thought that creeps up on me from time to time triggering quite a few strong emotions.

If this sounds like something you are currently experiencing, know that you are not alone!

Anticipatory grief brings with it very real emotions. After all, we are talking about the realization that our best friend is not going to be by our side forever.

This can be long-lasting and, in some cases, extremely challenging to navigate.

We often hear people talking about the stages of grief and how to deal with them, but anticipatory grief is rarely mentioned. This leaves many people unaware of what they are facing and struggling with their emotions alone.

Daviana out and exploring with us, doing what she loves best

Common Signs of Anticipatory Grief

Much like grief, everyone will experience and deal with anticipatory grief in their own way. However, there are some common signs that you will likely experience along the way.

These include:

  • Emotional Numbness
  • Sadness and Tearfulness
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • Anger, Resentment or Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Desire to talk about your pet
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling distracted or forgetful
  • Needing to have your pet close by at all times
  • Avoidance of your pet

Note that there is no ‘wrong’ way to deal with your emotions and your experience may look very different from that of the next person.

The 5 Stages of Anticipatory Grief

Much like the grief that we are more familiar with, following a loss, anticipatory grief is experienced by working through a series of different stages.

It is important to note that your journey through these stages may not be linear.

For some people, the stages of anticipatory grief will be experienced in order, as if working their way down the checklist. Others, however, may find that they move up and down this list, experiencing some stages multiple times along the way.

Shock

If your pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or potentially fatal health condition, the first feeling that you will likely feel is one of shock or disbelief.

For some, this is also accompanied by denial.

Pet owners who are acknowledging that their pet is entering the senior stages of life often also feel a state of disbelief, making statements like: “It felt like just yesterday we brought her home.

We don’t want to believe that we will have to say goodbye, so we often push that aside and deny it until it becomes obvious in the appearance, actions, or health of our pet.

Hope

After recognizing ‘that time’ is coming, we often find ourselves looking at different ways to extend their lives, buy some time or improve their quality of life.

This often includes the use of supplements or even, in the case of health-related conditions, expensive surgeries and treatments.

We are willing to make changes, spend money and do whatever we can to maximize the time that we have left with our pet and, if possible, to extend it as long as possible.

Note: I am NOT saying that this is a bad stage or that you should avoid any of these actions. We give our girl supplements and the impact it has had on her life is undeniably worth it.

Fear

If you have ever looked at your ill or senior pet and found yourself suddenly afraid of the changes that you are seeing and the way they may impact your pet’s happiness, then you have entered the stage of fear.

This is the point when the hope leaves for a moment and you’re hit with the harsh reality of your pet’s current situation, whatever that may be.

For some, this is the time tears start flowing in the middle of the day with no notice.

Others will navigate this stage by detaching and creating distance between themselves and their pet as a defence mechanism, trying to avoid the pain associated with the loss that they know is coming.

Related: ‘The Benefits of Hip and Joint Supplements for Senior Dogs

Anger/Frustration

If you are navigating an illness or disease with your dog, this stage may involve feelings of frustration that any attempts that you have made to improve your dog’s health are not working the way that you feel that they should.

Stories about other dogs that battled the same condition but lived longer or beat their disease are often shared with us to help bring hope.

However, at this stage, these stories can also trigger feelings of anger, frustration, and envy.

You may start questioning the decisions that you have made throughout your pet’s life and products that you have used, wondering if something contributed to their current condition.

‘What if’ questions are common at this point.

What if I fed my pet better food? What if I brought my pet to the veterinarian earlier?

It’s important to recognize that this form of self-torture isn’t beneficial for anyone. It isn’t going to help you work through your emotions nor will it change anything in terms of your pet’s current condition.

Pet owners caring for a senior dog may experience anger and frustration with the fact that their pet’s life expectancy is so short or even anger with themselves for bringing their pet home, to begin with.

I have had regular thoughts in recent months about the fact that it’s ‘just not fair’ that dogs live so much shorter than we do.

Anxiety

This final stage is usually experienced right at the end of this whole journey when your pet’s disease is starting to take over or the signs of old age are showing that your pet’s time is limited.

At this stage, you may become obsessive, constantly watching your pet for signs that something could be wrong.

Many pet owners experience a lack of sleep because they can’t shut their minds off. Their fears of what could happen keep playing in their minds, forcing them to keep waking up to check on their pet and make sure that everything is ok.

It is also common to experience overwhelming emotions, tears, and even emotional breakdowns at this stage as you start to come to terms with the fact that you are soon going to have to say goodbye.

Our beautiful girl Daviana curled up by the fireplace

Tips for Coping with Anticipatory Grief

Our society doesn’t generally support those who are grieving for the loss of a pet in the way that they would for a human friend or family member. For this reason, there are fewer support systems available for you to access.

However, there are steps that we can take to help ourselves navigate this challenging time to the best of our abilities and find the help that we need.

I am no expert at dealing with these emotions. As I said earlier, I am working on navigating this journey myself as I am writing this.

Throughout this time, I have picked up on some tips and tricks to deal with the overwhelming emotions and make the most of the time that I still have left with my beautiful girl (and with the pets that I have said goodbye to in the past).

Here are a few things that you can do to help work through this challenging time…

#1 – Validate Your Feelings

As I just stated here, our society isn’t going to validate your feelings for you. That, however, doesn’t mean that your feelings aren’t valid!

Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling without any judgement.

The first step to addressing and letting go of these feelings is to acknowledge them and give yourself the space needed to express them.

#2 – Prioritize Self-Care

Know that regardless of what your pet is currently dealing with, you can’t help them if you don’t help yourself first. As the old saying goes: ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.

This includes making sure that you are eating properly, getting a night of good sleep, and taking care of your mental and emotional health.

For me, this has included spending as much time outdoors as possible (with our pups, for the most part).

Others may benefit from setting aside time for a relaxing bath, long conversations with friends or curling up to watch your favourite movie and shut everything off for that short period of time.

Related: ‘Top 10 Reasons to Adopt A Senior Dog

#3 – Spend Quality Time Together

Your time with your pet may be limited, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy what you have left.

Take a moment to make a list of all of your pet’s favourite things to do and make time to enjoy these experiences together.

Depending on the pet, this may range from quiet time cuddled up together just cuddling for hours to taking an exciting road trip to visit all of their favourite spots.

Many pet owners create a ‘bucket list’ for their pet, allowing them to try foods that they weren’t allowed before or break rules such as sleeping on the bed if they weren’t previously allowed to.

This is the time to focus on making memories together. You don’t want to look back at this stage of your journey together and wish that you had done something differently.

#4 – Plan Ahead

While you don’t want to spend all of your time focusing on the fact that you are going to have to say goodbye, a little planning ahead could make this whole journey easier for you and your family.

Have a conversation with your veterinarian about the different options that are available to you when it’s time to say goodbye. This could include making an appointment with your veterinarian or even having someone come to your home to say your final goodbyes there.

If this is your first time making this kind of decision, I recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian about how to know when it’s time.

#5 – Reach Out for Support

Society may not view the loss of a pet as a major life-changing event, but those of us that share our hearts with a pet know that it is an emotional time in a pet owner’s life.

Consider reaching out to friends/family that are also pet owners, as they are more likely to understand what you are going through.

You may also consider reaching out to a professional for a one-on-one counselling session to address your emotions or joining a pet loss support group where you can speak with others that are navigating this challenging time.

Whatever you decide, know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE!   

An older Golden Retriever dog is laying on a wooden surface, its head down between its legs in a way that gives off the impression of being sad. Text says tips for coping with anticipatory grief as a pet owner.

Have you ever previously or are you currently coping with anticipatory grief?

I invite all pet owners to share their journeys and/or share about the sweet pets that have had such a big impact on their lives in the comments. Let’s support one another!

About Author

Britt is a digital/social media marketer and the owner of The Social Alternative. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending her time with her ‘pack’ which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs Daviana and Indiana and their 2 cats Pippen and Jinx. A proud pet mom, she shares all her pet-related tips, tricks and funny pet antics on Shed Happens.

32 Comments

  • Eleanor Jones
    April 29, 2021 at 9:37 am

    It must be so hard when a beloved pet dies, and these are some great tips for anticipating that kind of grief x

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 29, 2021 at 12:51 pm

      It is definitely a challenging and emotional time, but having the knowledge of what you’re going through and that it IS okay to be emotional and feel the way you do can make it a little easier to navigate.

      Reply
  • Corinna | Friendly Pantry
    April 29, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Thanks for helping with these difficult emotions for pet owners!

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 29, 2021 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you for reading!

      Reply
  • Unwanted Life
    April 29, 2021 at 10:22 am

    I hadn’t given this much though before, and I’ve had pets in the past myself. It makes sense that the anticipation of losing a pet will be painful for some people. However, the 5nstages of grief were only meant to be used for people who are told they’re dying from a terminal illness, rather than for the grieving of losing someone or something else. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and if you’re anything like me, you won’t go through any of the supposed 5 steps of grieving

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 29, 2021 at 12:46 pm

      I went through various of the 5 stages that I mentioned there (which are a little different than the typically discussed 5 stages of grief itself, but incredibly similar), however, I didn’t necessarily go through them in order or just go through them once. As I mentioned, I went back and forth and experienced many of them at different times. That being said, having a basic understanding of them has helped me to better understand why I respond the way that I do in some situations.

      Reply
  • Yolanda
    April 29, 2021 at 11:49 am

    Awe – your girl is just so beautiful and she really doesn’t look 13. My pup is 10 and his grey hair is popping up everywhere (kinda like me with no hair dye during the pandemic lol). It’s constantly on my mind that the most we’ll have is about 5 more years. I love him so much and don’t know what I’d do without him. Losing a pet is so hard. Ugh! Thanks for the tips – but I hope I won’t be needing the for a while xo

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 29, 2021 at 12:45 pm

      She doesn’t look her age at all, and I am SO lucky that she is in such great health despite getting up in years. We all wish our dogs could stay with us forever, don’t we?

      Reply
  • Lisa
    April 29, 2021 at 11:50 am

    Oh my goodness, I’ve not heard the term anticipatory grief before but I’ve certainly experienced those five stages in all their force when Jester, our senior cat, was in his last couple of year. The what if guilt is one of the hardest to cope with because you feel like you should be able to help, they’re your responsibility and you should be able to look after them. Brilliant post, Britt, thank you so much for writing so sensitively on this topic.

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 29, 2021 at 12:43 pm

      This time around is the first time that I’m navigating anticipatory grief with an understanding of what’s happening, and it makes me feel much more ‘sane’ during it all! I remember with our lab Chloe, I would randomly break down for no obvious reason and I thought that I was losing my mind. I hope that by talking about it and putting the information out there, it will help not only comfort those that are dealing with this but also provide an opportunity for us to support one another.

      Reply
  • Kasia
    April 29, 2021 at 5:19 pm

    Oh I wish I read this post when our friend’s dog died last year. I think it would have helped him a lot. I went through this with my dog that passed a long time ago. Honestly, I still get teary-eyed when I think of her. They do leave a lasting impression on us.

    Reply
    • Britt
      April 30, 2021 at 7:33 am

      I definitely still get emotional looking back at the pets that have passed in my life. Every one of them takes a piece of our heart with them.

      Reply
  • Lynn
    May 2, 2021 at 2:36 am

    Aw, this is super helpful for people going through grief but I’ve actually seen a lot of Tiktoks on pets passing lately 🙁 Thanks for sharing! x

    Lynn | https://www.lynnmumbingmejia.com

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 5:25 pm

      I’ve seen quite a few on TikTok recently too. I follow pet TikTok almost exclusively, so I know that increases the chances of seeing it. My heart goes out to each family going through those emotions at this time.

      Reply
  • Ruth Epstein
    May 2, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    You have hit the nail on the head with this, Layla is 14 plus and I am becoming more of a Jewish Mom with her lately, watching everything, making sure she is eating plus as my biggest fear is losing her. Thank you for this great post

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 5:24 pm

      It’s a challenging time emotionally, isn’t it. You want to enjoy every moment but when those moments come that you’re reminded of how hold the are, it hits hard.

      Reply
  • Marjorie at Dash Kitten
    May 2, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    When our cats get older the one who is failing gets everything they want, whenever they want it. No way am I ever going to be accusing myself of failing a single one of my cats. It took me nearly eight years to recover from losing Dash Kitten as his death was sudden. Harvey faded away but the world revolved around him and any time he wanted something he got it.

    It took me starting to meditate to get a grip on living their deaths before they happened. Now I know they go, it hurts but I try hard not to dwell on it and remember that without me they would not be here enjoying a safe and loving life.

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 5:09 pm

      We take a very similar approach here with our pack. For example, we know that Dav girl is getting REALLY old for her breed, so she gets whatever she wants whenever she wants it for the most part. Not that she wasn’t spoiled rotten before 😉

      Reply
  • Cathy Armato
    May 3, 2021 at 11:30 am

    This is so true, even just knowing your pet is a senior can create these emotions. I can’t believe my dogs are 12 and 13! Sometimes it fills me with anxiety & fear, but also Gratitude that I’ve been given this gift. I wish for more years all the time.
    Love & Biscuits
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 4:56 pm

      Yes! That’s the emotional struggle that I go through on a regular basis – shock that Dav girl is 13 already, anxiety and fear that she’s a senior, and gratitude that we have had so many incredible years together so far.

      Reply
  • Jana Rade
    May 3, 2021 at 3:38 pm

    I prefer to avoid content about grief before or after passing of a beloved dog. I am, however, acutely aware than Cookie is reaching the end of the average lifespan for her breed. My solution is to seize the day, allow her to enjoy every moment there is to be enjoyed and spoil her little extra.
    The fact would also influence my medical decisions now, for example, I’d be more likely to lean toward palliative approach over surgery which could take 6 months of recover out of the life she has left.
    Of course, I’m hoping that I don’t have to face such decisions.

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 4:55 pm

      I agree, I hope that I don’t have to face a difficult decision like that with our pups either. We did with our last dog, a lab named Chloe, and it was heartbreaking.

      Reply
  • Sweet Purrfections
    May 3, 2021 at 6:34 pm

    Truffle and Brulee will turn 10 years old this summer and I’m finding myself experience some anxiety when I realize their time with me is limited. Every time one of them sneezes or has diarrhea, I find myself experiencing anxiety attacks. I remember the anticipatory grief I experienced for the month after my previous cat was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, I had an understanding psychiatrist who helped me through it.

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 3, 2021 at 8:09 pm

      I honestly believe it’s an experience that needs to be discussed more often. We don’t realize that what we’re going through is normal and how to best navigate it unless we first recognize what’s happening.

      Reply
  • Shyla
    May 4, 2021 at 11:10 am

    Really well written post about a tough subject. It is so hard to lose a pet and definitely the realization thst they may be gone soon is a terrible feeling. Thank you for sharing this post and shed light on something that doesn’t get openly discussed enough.

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 4, 2021 at 11:14 am

      It’s an experience that no one wants to go through, but almost every pet owner is sure to experience at one time or another. That’s why I think we need to discuss it more – to help others realize that they are not alone with the emotions that they are feeling.

      Reply
  • Rosie Ireland
    May 5, 2021 at 8:04 am

    Ah this is super helpful. It’s such a sad time when pets pass away. My sister is a veterinary nurse and she has to deal with a lot of loss – sometimes unexpected which is really tough on her

    Rosie

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 5, 2021 at 1:17 pm

      I can only imagine how hard that would be on her emotionally.

      Reply
  • Sophie Harriet
    May 10, 2021 at 5:45 am

    This is such a valuable post. My previous cats both passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, which was a huge shock but it meant I didn’t experience any of the anticipatory grief beforehand. My current cat is about 9 years old now (we don’t know exactly because she was a rescue) so hopefully, she still has many years ahead of her but I do occasionally feel sad that she is heading into her senior years already. x

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 10, 2021 at 10:36 am

      It’s a difficult thing to wrap our heads around sometimes – we know that they still have a lot of time ahead of them, but we’re also looking at the future and the fact that their lives are shorter than ours and it will, inevitably, come to an end before we’re ready for it. It doesn’t matter how much notice you have or how much time you have to accept it, some part of you will never be ready to say goodbye. That’s why I think we need to normalize talking about these emotions.

      Reply
  • Miche Anni
    May 21, 2021 at 9:37 am

    Great post! I never thought about there being stages of grief but now that you laid it out, I can definitely see it. I’m also really glad that you discussed reaching out for support because this isn’t the type of thing you typically hear people encouraged to seek support for. But, of course, it’s no less worthy than other issues.

    Reply
    • Britt
      May 21, 2021 at 10:30 am

      Yes! I feel like there are so many times that we need support in life but don’t necessarily ask for it solely because our society has taught us that it’s somehow ‘not as important’ as the struggles that others face. This is a classic example. Rather than comparing our feelings and struggles to others and allowing ourselves to feel like we should ‘just deal with it’, let’s normalize asking for help and supporting one another through whatever life may throw our way.

      Reply

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