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Navigating Anticipatory Grief

Explore how to recognize anticipatory grief, develop coping strategies, prepare for the loss of a pet, and the importance of taking time to grieve and honor the enduring bonds shared with our pets.

Dr. Karen Whala

June 11, 2023

Ask any pet parent and they’ll tell you that pets hold a special place in their heart. With unwavering devotion and steadfast love it’s no wonder pets earn a space in our hearts and homes as family. However, as our pets age they may face health challenges and a gradually declining quality of life which can leave us feeling a sense of impending sadness and pain. This is anticipatory grief. Knowing what to expect and how to navigate these complex emotions will lead to a better understanding of anticipatory grief and the path to healing.

Recognizing Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is a natural response to the knowledge that a beloved pet is nearing the end of their journey. Emotions you may feel while experiencing anticipatory grief include sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, helplessness, and a profound sense of loss. Because each person’s experience with grief is unique, these emotions may vary along with the duration, intensity, and onset in relation to the pet’s passing. Acknowledging these feelings and accepting that they are normal, albeit varied, is a strong first step in navigating anticipatory grief.

Preparing for the Loss

Nothing can truly prepare us for the loss of a cherished pet. However, there are steps we can take to assist in moving toward acceptance. First, it is important to recognize that our pets live in the moment. We would do well to take a page from their book and enjoy the time we are able to spend together.

Additionally, we should evaluate our pets’ current comfort and anticipate needs that are likely to arise. This can look different for each pet and may include things like using anti-slip mats and raised food and water bowls for arthritic dogs; for our elderly kitties it may mean using litter boxes that don’t have a raised edge and providing graduated surfaces for the cat to progressively climb to favorite areas.

Be sure to discuss your pet’s condition and environment with your family veterinarian to understand the likely progression of their health, anticipate their needs, and provide medications or treatments as prescribed.

Coping Strategies

Whether this is your first time experiencing anticipatory grief or you’ve been down this road multiple times adding coping mechanisms to your toolkit is beneficial for what lies ahead.

Embrace open communication

Be open and honest with yourself and with those around you. This is hard. Sharing your struggles with your family and friends allows them to engage and help you bear this burden. It also helps others, especially children, who may be struggling too but aren’t sure how to express their pain. Modeling open communication may be just what you and those around you need to find comfort.

Document the moment

As you follow your pet’s lead and live in the moment, don’t forget to record it. Whether that means taking cellphone videos, journaling, hiring a professional photographer or portrait artist; creating new memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life gives your pet an enduring impact.

Build a support network

While embracing open communication you will likely find that you’ve built a circle of support. You can augment this organic circle by adding formal resources such as pet loss support groups or professional grief counselors. You can never have a network that is too big or too broad when it comes to support; consider adding every resource at your disposal.

Be kind to yourself

Make sure that you are not neglecting your needs. We all know that good food, moderate exercise, plenty of rest, and staying hydrated are important for feeling our best both physically and emotionally. Please take the time to treat yourself well and see that your needs are being met.

Additionally, you may benefit from engaging in favorite activities that bring you joy and relief from stress. Finally, be kind to yourself when it comes to your pet’s health. We all wish we could protect our loved ones from illness and decline but there is only so much that we can do. Give yourself permission to not be a superhuman miracle worker.

Familiarize yourself with the end-of-life care available

Talk to your veterinarian about the end of life options available to you. Whether it’s palliative care to ease a natural death or ending the dying process with euthanasia you have several options about when and how to say goodbye to your pet. Additionally, you have options for aftercare; how you wish to have your pet laid to rest.

Many families prefer in-home euthanasia which provides a peaceful passing where the pet is the most comfortable. After which the in-home euthanasia veterinarian can facilitate cremation either with the pet’s ashes being gathered into an urn or the ceremonious scattering of ashes by the crematorium caretakers.

Deciding in advance what is best for your family will help alleviate the stress and confusion of anticipating the unknown.

Honoring Your Pet’s Memory

As the loss becomes a reality, find ways to honor your pet. This may be planting a memorial garden, creating a tribute, or paying it forward through volunteering or donating to animal related causes. Memorializing your pet in whatever way feels the most appropriate will help move your grief into action and provide your pet with a legacy suitable to them.

Salve of Time

They say “time heals all wounds.” With respect to whoever “they” are, I don’t exactly agree. Time doesn’t heal, it can’t erase the pain we feel with loss. What time can do is apply a salve to our wounds, diminishing the sting and allowing us to temper our grief.

So allow yourself to take the time and space you need to process and to move through whatever stages of grief and range of emotions you experience. Don’t expect yourself to “get over it” faster if you’ve grieved in advance. Anticipatory grief does not diminish the grief at the time of the loss; but it can prepare us emotionally and can equip us to navigate towards acceptance.

Enduring Bonds

Grief, whether in anticipation of or in response to a loss, exists because something beautiful precedes it. We share a profoundly beautiful bond with our pets. The joy and comfort they bring into our lives are rightly missed when they are no longer with us and even before. It is normal to experience sadness and pain in advance of pet loss.

By understanding anticipatory grief, we can better navigate it for ourselves and others dealing with loss. Taking care of our healing and the healing of others is a fitting tribute to honor the beauty of the deep bond we share with our pets.

Dr. Karen Whala

Fresno, CA

About

Dr. Karen Whala has always had a soft spot for the older pets she’s treated in practice and saw a need for these beloved pets to pass peacefully at home rather than in a clinic setting. To that end, she started Peaceful Passing in 2018 to help families assist their terminally ill, injured, or suffering pets as they transitioned from life in the Fresno and Clovis areas. She finds that pets are so much more relaxed and peaceful when they pass at home, and it is truly a gift owners give their furry friends. Dr. Whala grew up in the Eastern foothills of Fresno County in the small towns of Dunlap and Miramonte. She obtained her Bachelors of Science degree in Animal Science and Management at UC Davis. During her youth, she operated a children’s petting zoo and traveled to schools, birthday parties, and library functions educating children on animal care. Her animals included everything from iguanas and ducklings to lambs and frogs, and it was during these formative pet-owning years that she decided to become a veterinarian. In 2006, Dr. Whala graduated with her veterinary degree from UC Davis. She began practicing at a local area mixed animal practice and worked with dairy cattle, horses, dogs, and cats and later transitioned to small animals exclusively. She took a few years break from private practice, during which she earned a Masters in Public Health and Board Certification in Veterinary Preventive Medicine. When Dr. Whala returned to private practice, it was to start Peaceful Passing. Dr. Whala lives in Fresno and keeps busy working at a local clinic part-time, helping families assist in the peaceful passing of their pets, volunteering with Pathfinders (a boys and girls club), backpacking, and hosting friends in her home. ‍ Read More