Loving a dog through the last stage of life isn’t easy, but there truly is nothing more rewarding than being there for your dog when she (or he) needs you the most. Here are some thoughts about the process and how we can make it a little easier to manage.
We generally think of grieving as something that happens after a loss. We expect to grieve our dog when she is no longer with us, as that’s a given. What we often think about is when we no longer see our dog’s beautiful face and hear the pitter-patter of her footsteps following us down the hall for dinner, or snuggling up in bed to our favorite furry buddy.
However, the grieving process actually begins before our loss when we first realize that it’s coming. This is called anticipatory grief, or grief that occurs before death. The symptoms are often the same as grieving after a loss—all of the feelings and thoughts, social, and cultural reactions to an expected death.
There are some differences between anticipatory grief and the grieving that occurs after death. Not everyone goes through it. But when they do, it often involves more anger, more loss of emotional control, and sometimes atypical grief responses. It’s often not discussed, which can make it even more challenging to process.
What it does do is provide an opportunity to say goodbye. To recognize what’s coming and to make sure to cherish every single moment. It’s a time of personal growth to find closure, assess priorities, and start to map out a different future.
Processing Our Emotions
We go through a wide range of emotions when we’re caring for our old and/or sick dog and preparing for her death. They may range from sadness, distraction, fear, guilt, and even anger to more serious issues like depression. Dealing with the fact that there is little we can do about what’s coming can be crushing.
And, if we’re in the position of being a caregiver, especially if our dog’s medical needs are especially intense near the end, it can be even more challenging finding balance. Trying to care for your pet when you are sad, exhausted, and burned out is, well, it’s exhausting.
What is Bonus Time?
Bonus time is the idea of extra, or bonus time as you’re nearing the end of life. No one lives forever. We won’t and our dogs won’t, but we often happily and blindly navigate our time with our dogs until we know we are nearing the end.
The concept of bonus time is that we know we are nearing the end, but instead of looking at this time with dread where the clock feels like it’s counting down, we instead appreciate the extra time that we have.
Enjoying bonus time means not focusing on the upcoming goodbye, but instead, focusing on making the most out of every special moment we get knowing the goodbye is near. It’s those extra snuggles, it’s the day off you take to be with your dog, it’s the bucket list of things you complete knowing your dog will enjoy every moment. Bonus time is all about creating the beautiful memories that will sustain you after your loss.
How to Manage Our Fear and Guilt
Truthfully, there’s really no right or wrong answer for handling those painful thoughts and feelings we have when we’re dealing with something as difficult as death. Everyone and every situation are so very different. We all have different triggers and thresholds for what we can handle and what causes us stress. Being afraid and feeling guilty are normal parts of the process and they’re difficult emotions. Here are some things to consider that may help.
Be Gentle to Yourself
It’s normal, healthy, and totally ok to grieve before and after your loss. The grief process is varied and you’ll go through different phases. And it’s not always linear, either. You may have moments of guilt, anger, and other strong and complex emotions.
Keep in mind that your dog is not going to die because you forgot to refill their water bowl for an hour, missed their medical that one time, or went out to dinner with your friends. Remind yourself of this when you need to. Know that this is normal and your dog loves you in spite of and because of your thoughts and feelings. Your dog just loves you.
Take Time for Fun
As much as you may not want to, you need to take some time occasionally to step away. Being a caregiver is hard and emotionally draining at times. You need to get out and get away periodically. Take that long shower, meet your friend for a movie, go for a walk alone. You can and need to have those moments. Those little snatches of time you take for you make you a better caregiver so you can focus on your dog when you need to.
Get a Support System
Make sure you have someone to talk to. This may be a friend or family member or it may be a professional. You are not alone in what you’re going through. Anyone who has ever loved anyone, human or furry, will at some point suffer a loss. Find someone who will support you when you need a good cry, and find someone who will remind you that what you’re feeling is normal. Because it is.
Make the Most of the Bonus Time
A friend of mine once told me the lesson she learned after she lost her soul dog. She spent so much time fearing his death, that she realized after she lost him that she didn’t make as much of the time she had with him in the end. Her painful lesson became a mantra, “I will have the rest of my days to mourn you. I choose to not do it while you’re still here.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t battle anticipatory grief, but she allows herself to feel it, then lets it go to focus on her time with her dog. Connecting with our gratitude to have those precious moments and finding enjoyment in them is one of the purest displays of love there is.
Here’s the thing: dogs don’t have much of a concept of the future so they don’t fear death. They live very much in the moment. We have an opportunity to learn from our dogs and to force ourselves into the present moment.
Unfortunately, we and our dogs can’t live forever. But, we have the opportunity to continue making precious memories while they are still with us that we can cherish for a lifetime.
There Isn’t a Right (or Wrong) Way to Grieve
Death and dying are tough for most people to handle, and we each grieve in our own way. There truly isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. We each have our own ways of dealing with it, and that’s perfectly normal. Take a page out of your dog’s book and live in the moment—enjoy the bonus time and feel the grief. Take the time you need then open your heart again when you’re ready.