Those of us who can anticipate our pet’s passing are the lucky ones: we are given the time to say goodbye, to spend one more glorious day with our pets as we see fit, maybe spoiling them with their favourite treats or a road trip to their favourite place.
But with this time can come anticipatory grief. This can occur when you realise you will soon lose a pet due to a terminal illness, advanced age or injury, making you experience feelings of loss even if your pet is still alive. The feeling may become so overwhelming that you experience the same emotions as someone who has just lost a pet, including physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual disruption. At this time, it’s important to look after not only your pet, but yourself as well.
Understanding that there is no normal way to grieve will help you to grieve in a healthy manner. For example, your family may have told you that the best way to grieve is to keep busy, to keep your mind off of unpleasant thoughts – however, this business can suppress your grief, wearing you down and causing you to miss out on precious time with your pet. The same can be said for when people tell you to “stay strong” – you do not need to be strong. In fact, knowing what is to come, you can be as vulnerable as you like, reaching out to family and friends that understand the special bond you share with your pet if you need. With that being said…
If your pet is undergoing treatment towards the end of their life, or you are attending your vet to talk about the next steps for an elderly or ill pet, it’s a good idea to ask a friend or family member to attend veterinary appointments. Your grief and emotions may very well cloud what your vets recommends – having a friend with you that can take notes during the appointment with a clear head will help you make decisions. If these decisions do not need to be made immediately (e.g. euthanasia), take the time to discuss your options with those around you.
These will be some of the most difficult choices you make – and it’s best to make them ahead of time, while you can still think and plan with clarity. While many people already know whether they are cremating or burying their pet, there are other aspects of an end-of-life plan that are often overlooked. These include:
Of course, knowing how your pet will be laid to rest is a very important aspect of your decision-making. Aside from knowing whether you will be going to bury or cremation, you also need to consider who will be undertaking the task of body care. Will it be provided by your veterinarian, or will you make those arrangements yourself?
It may be that you and your vet have settled on a date for euthanasia. You’ve decided that the vet is coming to your home, which members of the family will be present…and suddenly your pet seems to pep up. Have you made the right decision? Is now the right time? And them, just as suddenly, your pet’s health declines again.
This is part of the emotional rollercoaster of euthanasia. The word euthanasia itself comes from the Greek words eu, ‘well’ and thanatos, ‘death’; euthanasia is therefore the good death that your pet deserves. Remember: it’s age or illness taking your pet’s life, not you. Euthanasia is the best gift you can give your pet when there is no longer anything to sustain their comfort and happiness.
There is a way to help determine whether it’s time to say goodbye to your pet. Known as the Journeys Quality of Life Scale Calculator, it looks at Jumping or mobility, Ouch or pain, Uncertainty and understanding, Respiration or breathing, Neatness or hygiene, Eating and drinking, and You. You can undertake the test here – the lower the score, the more you should consider euthanasia for your pet. A pet that scores 80 in the test is happy and healthy, whereas a pet that scores 10 is suffering.
Setting boundaries for your pet is also worth considering. For example, when your pet loses interest in eating or drinking, they may have crossed a boundary that means it’s time to let go. These boundaries will be different for everyone – therefore there is no right and no wrong.
Grieving can be an exhausting process, so it’s best to pay attention to any signs that you’re being overwhelmed by it all. You may wish to take some time off work to help relieve pressure or put off any plans or commitments that are not of immediate importance. Grief is imposing – you can’t expect to fit it into your schedule, no matter how organised you are.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to write in a journal, reach out to a friend or grief counsellor, or simply cry. Be sure to eat healthily and get enough rest. It may also be worth considering the role of your pet in your life – this will later affect how you grieve. Were they a show pet, or a farm animal that you spent lots of time and money nurturing? Were they like a child to you? Are they the pet of a deceased family member? These secondary losses will also impact how you feel once your pet has passed – knowing where the feelings are coming from will be valuable in understanding yourself.