What is Anticipatory Grief?

What is anticipatory grief?

Most of us think of grief as something that happens after death. In fact, grief can start a long time before your beloved pet dies, but this is often not acknowledged, talked about or even understood.

When Stan was diagnosed with Lymphoma we knew it was terminal. I remember being so conflicted that I was already starting to grieve yet this beautiful boy was still with us and we were still fighting to help him. I remember hugging him and crying then feeling guilty for feeling that way because he was still with us. We had hoped that the medication the vet prescribed would give us a little longer but from him limping and going to the vets it was 2 short weeks until we lost him.

I didn’t know the facts about anticipatory grief then but I do now and I still would have felt the same because it is perfectly normal.

It is completely normal to begin grieving before death, if you are aware that your pet is going to die soon. When you get a terminal diagnosis for your beloved pet the grief can begin right then and there. All the feeling and thoughts you experience at this time can be just as intense and difficult as those after their death.

How is it different to other kinds of grief?

Grieving before your pet dies might feel no different to the grief you experience afterwards, but it does have some unique challenges.

Firstly, not everyone will experience anticipatory grief. For some, it may be that not acknowledging what is happening is a very good coping strategy and grieving may be perceived as giving up hope.

Those who are living with the knowledge of their beloved pets impending death can find themselves conflicted. On the one hand, they hold onto the hope that they won’t die, but at the same time, they are struggling with the idea of letting their much loved pet go when the time comes to say goodbye.

People can go between these two different positions and it is a difficult situation to cope with. You don’t want to be upset, you want to enjoy your last days or weeks together but at the same time you know you are going to lose them.

How might anticipatory grief affect someone?

We often don’t know when our pet will die but in the terms of terminal illness in our pets we do know the exact time and date they will leave us. Anticipatory grief can wear you down emotionally and physically, it can be so hard to keep going every day.

Fear, anxiety and panic can become part of your life. You may be constantly in a state of hyper-vigilance, wondering what is going to happen next. Constantly watching your pet to make sure they aren’t in pain or suffering can be draining emotionally and physically. It can sap your energy to keep going every day. This takes it toll on your wellbeing and your stability. You might find your emotions are all over the place and you may find yourself very distracted and unable to concentrate.

Time is a factor too, because although, undoubtedly, sudden deaths are deeply shocking and hard to come to terms with, a slow deterioration towards death can erode our wellbeing minute by minute and day by day. This can have a big impact on yourself and your family. There may be a horrible feeling of dread which is stretched out day after day.

You may find yourself putting your own life on hold and feeling fed up on occasions, which is entirely normal and natural. These are the feelings that you don’t feel you can say out loud in fear of judgement from others.

What feelings do you get in anticipatory grief?

There is no emotion you could name which might not present itself in anticipatory grief. The name a few: sadness, anger, frustration, hopefulness, desperation, anxiety, panic, insecurity, guilt, shame, love, isolation, feeling depressed and fed up. All these feelings are totally natural and normal.

Importantly it is also entirely normal to feel that you wish it was all over soon because you can’t bear it any longer. Many people don’t want to admit that feeling but it is very real although you can and do experience feelings of intense guilt because of it. Again this is perfectly normal.

What can you do to support yourself?

Acknowledge to yourself and others (if you can) what you are feeling. Try not to hide those emotions and remember that others in the family may be feeling exactly the same, but no-one is talking about it.

Ask for help. So many people soldier on without saying how they feel and there are people you can talk to. Not just professionals but people who are going through, or have been through the same thing.

Find ways to spend time with your loved pet that is meaningful to both of you, a walk in their favourite place, a trip to the beach, give them their favourite food. Tell them you love them, talk to them, it doesn’t matter what you say, our pets love us unconditionally, spend time with them.

Take care of yourself. Find time to relax, make time to connect with your family and friends, have a relaxing bath, cook a nice meal. Take time to rest. You are important too.

If you need help with how you are feeling please know you are not alone. Seek help, talk to someone. There are so many groups on social media that are available 24/7 and there are professionals, like myself, that you can talk to. You are not alone.

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