Dr Naomi Harvey, a zoologist, describes how she has learnt to deal with her anticipatory grief
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What can help your approach
Some owners are in denial that their pets will die. They may suffer severe anxiety if they think of their pet dying, and may deny signs of ageing-related illness because the thought of the loss is simply too painful to consider. This is a well-recognised aspect of anticipatory grief. Younger, female owners may be particularly affected.
If you think it is appropriate, discuss this sensitively with clients who appear very closely attached to their pets. It is likely to help them to know that this isn’t something unique to them, and it’s not something to be ashamed of but it is something they will need to tackle.
Discussing desensitisation as described by Naomi may be useful for some owners. For others, talking about what happens when a pet dies or is euthanased, and making a plan for what they will do may be valuable.
For further information about anticipatory grief and the importance of supporting clients before and after bereavement, see these articles by Carolyn Hewson in the Veterinary Ireland Journal:www.veterinaryirelandjournal.com/images/sa_jul_2014.pdf and www.veterinaryirelandjournal.com/images/sa_aug_2014.pdf
For some owners, simply imagining life without their pet may be difficult. I know it is for me. I have had my cat Dreamer since I was 13 years old. She is now 18, and has been with me for my whole teenage and adult life.
Being a zoologist, I get heavily involved in her healthcare; following a diagnosis at the vets, I read all of the latest research to make sure I fully understand the treatment options available (I’m sure you know the type!). I am able to discuss her health rationally with my vet, and I believe this allows me to make the best decisions for her care. However, this was not always the case.
I am an owner who has repeatedly said the phrase ‘I don’t know how I will cope when I lose her’. Having had Dreamer in my life for so long, and being so close to her, there was a time when simply thinking about her dying would have caused me to panic. I used to respond to this, as many people do, by refusing point-blank to even think about it.
However, at the age of 14, Dreamer began to limp a little and was diagnosed with arthritis. This diagnosis really rocked me. It was a sign that she was getting old and the end was closer.
A few weeks later my husband told me off. He’d noticed that I had been interacting with her less, and had been pulling away emotionally from her, wallowing already in the loss that was to come. “She’s still here” he said. “Don’t let the future ruin the time you have now”. As I thought about these words I realised he had been right. I had unconsciously begun to distance myself from her to try to reduce the inevitable pain I would feel when she does eventually die. I knew I couldn’t keep living in denial and I recognised that it was not only unhealthy for me to react the way I did to her ageing, but it was also bad for her wellbeing.
This diagnosis really rocked me. It was a sign that she was getting old and the end was closer
Over the past three years, I’ve gradually built up to thinking about Dreamer’s death through a process akin to desensitisation; purposefully imagining it happening then stopping as soon as the tears start. At first, I could only do it for a few seconds, but now I can openly talk about it without crying. I have read online what to expect when a cat is dying, what signs to look out for, and in my head I’ve planned my own threshold points to minimise her suffering.
It is still upsetting, and I know I will still struggle when it happens, but I think I will cope better for having prepared myself mentally than if I had lived in denial of the inevitable. And perhaps more importantly, I feel that Dreamer’s elderly years (and last days) will be the best they can be now, with me able to continue loving her fully without denial of what’s to come.
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