Why am I so sad?
My pet is still alive and I am already feeling the loss. Why?
It may begin with a diagnosis of an incurable disease or condition. For example, if an older cat is diagnosed with borderline kidney failure you know that you can manage the disease for some time, but your cat will never be cured.
It may be when you look at your pet and really see the changes that have been happening slowly over time.
You realize intellectually and emotionally that you are going to lose your pet. You always knew this day would come but now it is not only known, you feel it deeply and painfully. You begin to grieve, but there is no closure to your grief. You can’t “get over it” because the loss has not happened yet. You also understand that things will get worse before they get better.
At this stage you begin to acknowledge that your pet is going to die. You don’t know when, but you know the loss is coming. It may be months away or it may be next week, but you know you have reached the beginning of the end.
In this period even though your pet is still alive,you will also experience the classic stages of grief as defined by Dr. Kuebler- Ross.: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
Denial may have already preceded this stage, only stopping when you accept and acknowledge the diagnosis and changes in your pet. It may resurface from time to time, especially if your pet had a very good time and was like it’s old self. Anger comes at odd times and can be irrational. You might be angry that you psyched yourself up when you took your pet to an appointment thinking that this was it. While you are glad that you can take your pet home you are also angry that you will have to go through the same thing again.
Depression comes and goes as you think about a future without your pet. The most common reaction at this stage is bargaining- bargaining with your pet, the vet, yourself or a higher power for anything that will extend or improve the life of your pet.
While some psychologists consider bargaining to be nothing more than a mental game we play to avoid or ignore grief it can be genuinely helpful, provided one is realistic about the process. If you find yourself in Pet Loss Limbo you may find that bargaining is a good way to move from grief to acceptance.
Tips on healthy bargaining:
Be realistic about your pet’s condition. Don’t expect a miracle, you’ll only be disappointed. Look for ways to work within or around your pet’s condition to extend and improve his/her life.
Focus your efforts on the pet’s well-being, not your own. Use this time to look for ways to improve your pet’s life and comfort level. By doing so you’ll enhance your own ability to accept the inevitable.
Use whatever time your pet has left to take care of unfinished business. If you always wanted to spend more time with your pet, do it now. If there are special treats or experiences that your pet particularly enjoys, use this time to provide them. The best way to spend this time is to ensure that when your pet dies, you aren’t left with regrets and self-recriminations.
Seek balance between your pet’s health and its general comfort and happiness. Often your pet doesn’t like the special diet it is on to help prolong its life. If your pet is losing weight because it is not eating feed it what it likes. If the treatments are more painful or stressful than the disease you may need to decide between quality and quantity of life.
Keep your end of the bargain. If you have asked for more time to give your pet more love and attention and your wish was granted, use it and be thankful that you had extra time to spend with your pet.
Understand that bargaining isn’t going to change the final outcome. If your pet has a terminal illness you may gain the gift of time but it is a temporary gift. Use that time to improve your pets’ quality of life but also to come to terms with what is going to happen. That time might be enough to help you work through your emotions and feelings and be able to accept your pets’ death with a measure of peace.
1] This article is based on the publication “Pre-Loss Bereavement” and the Power of Bargaining by Moira Anderson Allen as posted on the Pet Loss Support Page.