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Anticipatory Grief: Coping With The Impending Death of Our Pet

Last night, we were pulling into the driveway after picking up food and I noticed Beep Beep outside in the yard.

He’s a house rooster. I had not let them outside. 

So I started to panic and look around… then I saw her. 

Pancake laying down in the leaves. Her head, flat on the ground, and Stelly running around her and yelling.

I jumped out of the car while it was moving and ran to her. I was so scared and I knew she was dead. Somehow, they had gotten outside. Probably from one of the dogs opening the door while we were gone.

I ran up to her and she picked her head up. 

And I started to cry. Ugly cry. I was so scared that she was dead. 

So I scooped her up and cried and cried and then Leslie walked over and made fun of me for crying over a very alive (and slightly annoyed) chicken who had just been bathing in the sun.

This is anticipatory grief. The dread and fear of the impending death of our pets.

What Is Anticipatory Grief?

The bond between a pet and its owner is a special and unique relationship that can bring a lifetime of joy. However, when your pet is facing a terminal illness or has reached the final years of its life, it can be an earth-shaking and heartbreaking experience for the owner.

This is where anticipatory grief comes into play. Anticipatory grief is a type of grief that occurs before the actual loss of a loved one, or in our case, a beloved pet.

Anticipatory Grief vs. Normal Grief

Here is my honest opinion on this: Anticipatory grief is worse than grief itself. 

I say this because, with anticipatory grief, the sadness and anxiety that we feel grows with every passing day that we don’t lose our pet. The waiting, alone, can be unbearable.

Pancake isn’t the healthiest of birds. She is prone to respiratory illnesses and, to be honest, has a very hard time fighting off illness naturally, without human intervention. I have a medicine cabinet stocked with chicken meds specifically for her.

Chickens, in general, aren’t all that hardy when it comes to illness. Don’t get me wrong, they’re some of the strongest little beings I’ve ever encountered, however, blow a fan on them and they’re sneezing six seconds in.

With all of this in play, I know that Pancake isn’t going to outlive me. I wake up every day hoping that Pancake will be waiting at the door of her cage, ready to come out and sing me a good morning song. 

However, I know that one day she won’t be. And I dread that day. THAT is anticipatory grief. 

People typically view grieving as something that occurs after the “event”. But grieving can occur before the “event”. 

It is something that weighs heavily on a lot of us. For me, someone who is already prone to anxiety and depression, the anticipation and the “not knowing” eats at me.

I’ve experienced this grief many times in my life. With Boots, then my mom, Addie, and now Pancake. Knowing that death is coming quickly but unaware of when exactly.

Signs of Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief can take many different forms, and each person’s experience can be different. Common signs of anticipatory grief in pet owners include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • anger
  • helplessness
  • sadness
  • headaches
  • stomachaches
  • fatigue

How we process things is specific to us. So is how we handle it. 

Getting the news from your vet that your pet has a terminal illness can cause a lot of emotions. You will find that you are grieving your pet before they’ve even left you.

When I was told that Addie was in Kidney failure I felt a lot of things. Guilt, was number one, because I should have seen the signs long before her disease had gotten to the point it was at. 

I had dealt with Kidney failure before. How had I missed the very obvious signs? Why didn’t I get her into the vet sooner? Why did I let her get to the point of not eating before I finally said, “Okay, enough is enough.” and brought her in.

I felt anger because of that guilt. I was angry with myself. She was my responsibility. I had committed to her all those years ago and I just failed her. 

I was depressed because I knew her death was coming quickly. Whether it was going to be natural or I would have to make the decision to help her.. It was coming.

I spent every day after that dreading every passing second. I was watching her like a hawk, just waiting. It wasn’t very long after that I had to make that final decision for her.

Other signs of anticipatory grief may include appetite changes or sleeping patterns and difficulty concentrating. It is important to recognize that this is a natural and normal response to the impending loss of your pet and pet owners should seek support from friends, family, and other pet owners who have experienced a similar loss.

Coping With Anticipatory Grief

Coping with anticipatory grief can be hard for a pet owner. The important thing to remember is that what you are feeling is normal. It is okay to feel what you are feeling. Allow yourself time to grieve.

In my honest opinion, we are lucky. We know that the time we have left with our beloved pet is limited. Whether you have a date to set them free or you are just waiting for them to make that decision, at least you know. 

We are able to take these last moments with them and make them the best they’ve had. 

Extra snuggles on the couch and extra bites of ice cream. A hamburger and fries from Mcdonald’s. 

We can give them these special things. 

I read a story one time that made me sob. A veterinarian keeps a jar of Hershey’s Kisses specifically for pets that are ready to move on. She gives them a Kiss before she sends them to sleep because she believes every dog should taste chocolate in their lifetime.

Doing these extra things to make our pets feel a little more loved can make a huge impact on your own mental health when it comes to grieving. 

We have to remember, our pets don’t know that they have cancer or that their days are limited. They only know that they don’t feel well and that mom or dad is giving them extra love and making them extra happy. They don’t know that they are dying. We do. All they know is that today is a good day. 

Making Memories

Doing extra special things with your pet makes it easier for you when it comes to grieving and healing. Take pictures and make an effort to remember details from the time you have left. 

If your pet doesn’t sleep with you, let them. Take them on some extra car rides. Bring them to the beach or on an extended walk just letting them sniff every inch of the sidewalk. Enjoy the time you have left and tell your pet how much you love them and how special they are.

If I am holding Pancake, I will kiss her head before putting her down, every single time. I tell her constantly how much I love her. When her time comes, she will know that she was loved and I’ll have peace in knowing that she knew.

Pet Memorialization

Pet memorialization can be an important aspect of coping with the loss of your pet. It is a way to honor your beloved pet and help to bring you closure.

Examples include:

  • Memory box with pictures and clothes or toys
  • Displaying photos of your pet in your home
  • Create a memorial garden in their honor with your pets ashes scattered
  • Planting a tree
  • Displaying their ashes, picture, collar and toy in a shadow box

There are plenty of ways that you can honor your pet in your home and help to bring a sense of closure to yourself.

Preparing For The End

End-of-life care for pets is an essential part of managing anticipatory grief. Some pet owners might not be aware of the end-of-life or palliative care options available to them. Such programs can provide support to both pet and owner during these trying times.

Pet Hospice

Pet hospice is a type of care that provides comfort and quality of life to pets with terminal illnesses. Similar to human hospice, pet hospice manages symptoms, pain, and ensures comfort throughout their remaining days.

Having someone not emotionally attached to your pet can be beneficial to you when it comes to making decisions. Check with your veterinarian to see what options you may have.

Pet Burial and Cremation

Something I like to recommend is to have the plans set up for your pets burial or cremation. Planning for these things can be difficult, but not as difficult as it is after your pet has passed.

Either paying and planning for it in advance or having someone else do it for you will make a huge difference for you.

With Boots, I handled it all by myself and it was so difficult. Making decisions in such a time of grief was incredibly difficult. For Addie, Leslie took care of everything while I held her body for a moment longer. I was very grateful to not have to rush to let her go to get everything set up and paid.

Make your decisions early and have your plans laid out before the event.

Pet Euthanasia

When the time comes to make the decision you are dreading the most, remember this: The kindest thing you can do for your pet is take away their misery. 

You’ve done everything in your power for their entire life to make them happy and make their lives wonderful. You can do the same thing in the end by ending their suffering. 

The decision to euthanize your pet is hard. I’ve had to make this choice twice for my own beloved pets and multiple times for rescues. It’s never easy. However, I do have peace knowing that in the end, I was there to hold them and love them. I know that in their very last moments, they smelled me, they felt me, and they heard me say over and over how much I love them. 

The decision to let them go is a personal one. One that should be made with your family and your vet. Your pet can’t speak for themselves and you are their voice. They’ve trusted you their entire lives to keep them safe and they will continue to do so when the end comes. 

If today isn’t the day, that is okay. You do it when you feel it is time. 

For me, my dogs let me know when they were ready. I could see in their eyes that they were tired of fighting and that they were ready. At that point, seeing them like this, I was ready, too. 

Not ready for them to leave me, but ready for them to stop suffering. 

If they passed naturally, then they knew that they were ready and took control themselves. Your pet gave you one last gift, and it was taking that burden from you. They felt loved and were ready to go. They weren’t alone. Instead, they closed their eyes, pictured you, and left this world with you as their final thought. 

The Grief After

So make their paw print and nose art, save a clipping of hair or feathers, take pictures, and remind them that they are the best boy or girl. Trust yourself in knowing what is best for them. 

Your grief is no longer anticipatory. However, you’ve done everything right. Remember that while you run through the stages of grief after they’re gone. 

You gave them the best life could offer and you sent them on to their next journey with compassion and love.

I will never say that the pain of losing a pet goes away because it just doesn’t. But one day you will wake up and you won’t reach out to rub their belly or listen for their tippy tap on the floor. You’ll just wake up and go through the motions of your day. 

Thoughts of my lost pets run through my head often and the pain I feel hits me like a train, however, I can remind myself that I gave them the best life and they knew that. I will forever miss them but now I can give that love to another pet who needs it. 

Grief Support for Pet Owners

If you are struggling with the loss or the anticipated loss of your pet, there are resources available for you. Rainbows Bridge is a support page with a chat room and many articles to read on coping with the loss of a pet. 

The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement is also a support page with lots of resources available as well as volunteer opportunities that you can utilize to help other pet parents during the hardest moments of their lives. 

Don’t be ashamed to seek professional help during these hard times. What you are experiencing is a natural and normal thing. As pet owners, we become very close to our pets and losing them is like losing a part of ourselves. Reach out to family or friends for support when you need it.

You don’t have to do this alone.

In loving memory of my soul dog, Boots, and our best girl, Addie.

Coping with anticipatory grief and the loss of a pet. Boots and Addie.

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