When we learn that our beloved pet has a terminal illness, or we realize that they are struggling with the changes that old age brings, many of us feel a deep sense of loss or grief even though our pet is still with us. This experience of coping with loss before our loved one has died is called anticipatory grief, and it is a common and natural reaction to the realization that you will soon be saying goodbye. We tend to think of grief as a reaction to the death of a pet, but in some situations the grief process begins the moment we learn of a terminal diagnosis or see our beloved pet struggling with old age symptoms.
When a pet dies, we often think of and refer to the death as one loss, but often the time leading up to the death can feel like a series of losses. For example, as a dog ages, she may one day be unable to go as far on her daily walk as she used to without becoming tired. Or perhaps an elderly cat becomes unable to climb onto the couch and lay in your lap like he often did before. These changes represent endings, and they remind us of the inevitable goodbye that everyone who loves a pet must face. We grieve the loss of each and every step along the way as we try to navigate this last stage of life with our pet. To witness and reflect on the losses occurring during the end-of-life stage is a heartbreaking process that can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster. In tandem with our pet’s physical health, we experience the good days and the bad days with them and it often reflects in our grieving.
How people experience anticipatory grief varies greatly. People may experience many or few of the emotions. Some of the most common feelings include sorrow, dread, anger, anxiety, and depression, and may include physical feelings such as changes in appetite, weight, and sleep patterns. In addition, people may experience times of acceptance, peace, growth and reflection. Some people may feel the urge to distance themselves from the pet and the end-of-life process. While this is a distressing feeling, it can be a natural part of the process and is something that can be recognized and worked through. For most people, it is this combination of anxiety of what’s to come and the determination to make things count that leads us on an emotional rollercoaster. It is important to acknowledge your experience and give yourself permission to feel it and process it.
In many ways, anticipatory grief is a form of coping as it helps you prepare yourself emotionally for the loss. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to reach out and use your support system and take extra time to care for yourself and spend quality time with your pet.