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.
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.
- Emotional Numbness
- Sadness and Tearfulness
- Anger, Resentment or Frustration
- Desire to talk about your pet
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!