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Dealing With Terminal Illness and Grief

Sadness and confusion during "the waiting" time

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Sometimes, after receiving a terminal diagnosis for a pet, the "waiting" time is the most painful time. Grief is a daily bittersweet experience. A couple of recent posts in the VetMed forum clearly stated this time of confusion and loss, with owners seeking solace and tips for coping from other forum members. This article explores this period when we try to celebrate our pet's life while saying goodbye.

The following post is definitely one that I can relate to on a personal level. I have had many instances in my life of knowing that "the end is near" for a beloved pet, trying to make the most of the time left, as well as dealing specifically with the often devastating effects of osteosarcoma.

    HOPKINSR writes: "I recently learned that my eleven year old Rottweiler has osteosarcoma, coupled with lung cancer. I was encouraged to bring her home, with pain meds (enough for two weeks) they don't feel she will live longer than that. Each night I ask her to go to sleep, and complete her journey.... giving her a great big kiss. Upon doing all my research on the computer I came across this board that has been helpful. But also came along another that simply said "do not mourn the living". I try my hardest not to, by preparing for her death. Taking more pictures to add to the thousands I have of her already. Giving her special treats and feeding her anything she wants. But the one thing I can't bring myself to do at this point is to end her pain. The vet said he would prefer to let her die naturally, if the pain meds provide her relief, which they have. I just don't know what to expect from this point." Read more...

    A similar story:
    SPOOKIESMOM writes: "I'm writing in regards to my beloved 16 year old cat, Spookie. My vet thinks that his blood work could indicate an underlying condition, perhaps a tumor. My dilema is this: I want to pursue this and find out if something more is wrong. My husband thinks it's Spookie's time and we should "let go". I'm wondering if anyone else has had experience with something similar to this? It's so hard to let go of our fur-babies isn't it? Diagnostic tests are so expensive. I'm having a tough time knowing what to do or where to draw the line. They say that you'll know... that your pet will let you know... and he is definitely not himself. He has that "tired" look in his eyes and it breaks my heart. Thanks for any input...or encouragement. I'm really sad at the thought of losing my little guy, but sadder at the thought of his suffering after a good long life." Read more...

It is common for people, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, to experience a wide range of emotions. While grief is often considered to be something one experiences after the loss of a pet, it can also be experienced during this window of time during terminal illness. The five stages of grief include this early time period:

  • Denial - This can't be happening to me/my pet!
  • Anger - Why me? This isn't fair!
  • Bargaining - If I could just have more time, find the best cure, do something to change the outcome.
  • Depression - The grief and sadness can be overwhelming.
  • Acceptance - My pet is now in a better place or at Rainbow Bridge.

Guilt is often another component of this process; could the illness have been prevented or diagnosed earlier for a better outcome? Have all diagnostics and treatment plans been evaluated?

When faced with losing a beloved pet, it is wise and yes, very difficult, to not "mourn the living". If pain and other physical discomforts can be controlled with medications, our pets are much better equipped to "live in the moment", unaware of all that worries us.

I know that for me, I try to do my best to be upbeat and not stressed when with my ill pet. One less thing for them to "take care of". Yes, it is hard (impossible) to hide sometimes, but by trying to be as relaxed and assured around the pet, that is the best thing we can offer for their "emotional comfort" -- knowing that their people are there for them.

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