Nearing the end: How to deal with anticipatory grief for a terminally ill or elderly pet

If we’re lucky, our pets will live long and healthy lives but, sadly, the end must come eventually.
If you have a terminally ill or elderly pet, the grief can start a long time before you actually lose them. This is known as anticipatory grief and can bring its own particular pain and heartache.

Living on borrowed time

With anticipatory grief, you know that your pet is living their last months, weeks or even days.
You may enter this phase of grief at the moment the vet gives your companion a terminal diagnosis or it can creep up slowly, making its presence known the first time your senior cat stumbles on the stairs or when your elderly dog suddenly doesn’t hear you arrive home.
Anticipatory grief can be traumatic and exhausting because it’s often associated with an unknown time frame, as well as uncertainty and questions about the future.

  • Is she suffering?
  • How long do we have left?
  • Why didn’t I notice the symptoms sooner?
  • Is there something we could have done?
  • How will I know when the time is right to let him go?
  • Am I making the right decisions?
  • What if I wait too long to say goodbye?
  • What if I say goodbye too soon?

Many pet carers describe feelings of anxiety and even depression when they have a terminally ill or senior pet. The responsibility of caring for another life takes on a new dimension when you have to start talking about the end of that life.

When you see your pet go into a slow decline, it can be hard to determine when enough is enough – to identify the tipping point when there are more bad days than good – and this can be very distressing.

Naturally, you will want to grab every moment and fill your pet’s days with as much happiness as possible. Yet, at the same time, you probably feel like you’re waiting for a train to hit – preparing yourself for the blow you know is coming. This can leave you feeling sad and frightened at a time when everyone is telling you to enjoy the time you have left with your pet.
The biggest question on your mind may be, “How will I cope without them?”

Strategies for coping with anticipatory grief

• Sit with your feelings

You may feel as though you shouldn’t be grieving while your animal companion is still with you. But anticipatory grief plays a really important role in helping us to prepare for the loss of a loved one.

You have every right to grieve, to feel angry, scared, sad, or even to accept that the end is coming. Your pet, someone you love, is dying – of course, you are grieving.

• Ask for help if you need it

Living with a terminally ill or elderly pet can be exhausting – you may be living around a regimen of medication or having to clean up accidents around the house. Your pet may be unsettled and vocal during the night (common in older cats with ‘dementia’) or you may have to attend regular veterinary appointments. Each circumstance presents its own challenges.

If you need help, please reach out to your friends and family, if possible. They may be able to help on a practical and emotional level.

• Plan ahead

Knowing that the end of your pet’s life is approaching presents the opportunity – however unwelcome – to plan in advance.

Some people decide to spoil their pet by giving them their favourite treats or taking them to their favourite places. This can be a lovely way to create more memories together.

You might also want to talk to your vet in advance about end-of-life decisions for your pet. For example, if euthanasia is being discussed, is there a possibility that your vet – or another vet they recommend – could come to your home if that would be less stressful for you and your pet? Finding out in advance could help you to prepare and know what to expect.

As difficult as it is, this might be a suitable time to talk about your wishes for after your pet’s death. For example, do you want them to be cremated and their ashes returned to you or do you want to bury them in the garden? It’s worth exploring your options ahead of time.

• Talk to your vet

As much as we would all like our pets to pass peacefully and painlessly in their sleep at a great age, this is rarely the case. Euthanasia is typically the most humane option to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering.

However, knowing when the time is right to say goodbye can be a major source of anxiety.
If this is an issue that’s worrying you, do have a chat with your vet in advance. They are there to advocate for your pet and may have a clearer view of when euthanasia is an appropriate choice. Your vet can’t force you to take a particular course of action but they can tell you when they think your pet has had enough, even if it comes at a time when you don’t want to see it.
It can be reassuring to have this safety net in place. Your vet may also be able to reassure you that the time hasn’t come yet, which can be a huge relief.

There is useful information on this page.

• Take lots of pictures and videos

Some people resist taking pictures of their elderly or ill pets because they don’t want their lasting memories to be of when their loved one was poorly. This is completely understandable.
For other people though, pictures and videos can be a great source of comfort. As well as taking pictures of your pet doing what they love or with the people closest to them, you may one day take pleasure from photos that show a close up for your pet’s paws or their special markings or the shape of their nose. These little personal details can bring precious memories flooding back.

One day at a time

Above all, try to take things one day at a time. As with a terminally ill person or someone who is very old, your pet will have good days and bad days. As their carer, you’ll have good days and bad days too.

Anticipatory grief, like every other kind of grief, has no timeline, no rules and looks different for every person. But it is so very normal, an integral part of loving a pet and not wanting to face the future without them.

If this is an issue you’re struggling with right now, support and understanding are available via The Ralph Site. We have a number of people in our Facebook group who have terminally ill or elderly pets or who have been through the pain of anticipatory grief.

You are not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team,
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

6 thoughts on “Nearing the end: How to deal with anticipatory grief for a terminally ill or elderly pet

  1. Pingback: How to cope when you’re caring for a terminally ill pet | The Ralph Site Blog

  2. Belinda Moreno

    I have all of the same questions run through my head everyday since I got Jillian’s diagnosis. This is the worst. I try to live in the moment, but I can’t stop crying. It hurts to know her body is dying with cancer, I hurt knowing that I will have to live my life without her and it hurts, the thought of being alone, when she is all I have. I also am mad, because she is so sweet and does not deserve to go like this. She never hurt anyone.

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  3. Angela Rex

    This was so spot on and helpful for me. My dog is 14 and my horse is 31, and the last few months have been so hard as they are both declining and I’m trying so hard to make sure I do right by them and enjoy the time we have while panicking at some moments where the loss feels close (but then it’s just a bad day). I’ve been a mess and feeling so overwhelmed, and this truly sketched out the mental state I’ve been in. My horse is the love of my life, I’ve had him since he was 4, and I really don’t know how to navigate the waters we are now in.

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  4. Nancy

    I had never heard the term anticipatory grief until I joined your group. Thank you! I have gone through this multiple times in my life, both with pets and with people. Again, most recently with an elderly dog who had been diagnosed with CLL (leukemia) when he was 12 and at first we just did a watch and wait, then a a year of chemo which he did very well, and the last 6 or so months he started a slow decline with cognitive dysfunction. We were constantly adjusting – trying to keep him comfortable. He had to start wearing diapers and we had many nights of vocalization, pacing, getting stuck in a corner, etc. He still ate like a champ enjoying every morsel. At the same time I was watching my elderly mother go through a similar decline. Every visit with her, I would come home so sad. The decline happened at a slow pace that it’s sometimes hard to see and with Quinn the dog, I was constantly consulting the vet for meds or ideas of how to manage it, thinking that doing so he would get better…. He died in October, 2022 at 15.5 years old and my mom died in January 2023. In between, our 7 year old dog Fuji died rather suddenly of liver cancer. We virtually had no warning. As hard as the anticipatory grief was, his death hit me so much harder and it’s been harder for me to get through. I felt that with the anticipatory grief, since the grieving process started long before Quinn or my mom died, I was able to process and grieve those deaths better. But, the big thing about anticipatory death that I haven’t seen mentioned is that when you are dealing with anyone who has been sick for a long time before they die, when they do die, we tend to remember them for what they had become, not who they were before they were ill and I find that very hard. It takes me a long time to remember them in better days….

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