Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Foreboding joy is a common threat to the unexpected joys that unfold in animal hospice

It’s fair to say that the past few months have resulted in a lot of unexpected things. A pandemic in the digital age has, as an example, allowed many people to remain at home in an effort to keep the virus from spreading, while still fulfilling their work duties. This includes the majority of my families. 

Though the boon of being able to be home and appreciate their home spaces more and share time with their pets, there has been a lot of discussion about how tough it’s going to be on pets when it’s safe enough for their humans are finally able to be back in their workplaces part- or full-time. Our animal friends have gotten used to the heightened level of companionship on nearly a 24/7 basis. The notion of separation anxiety developing is on the minds of many, including me. 

I do see there is a benefit, if I may, that has sprung from families being able to be home so much due to the pandemic: their being able to be more present than they might ordinarily be able to during a pet’s final months, weeks and days. Several of my families have expressed over the past few months that though they still need to tend to work responsibilities, having the unexpected luxury of not needing the hands-on care that I provide as an animal end-of-life doula has been the greatest blessing in the wake of a most-important time of their pet’s life. Outside of the pandemic, they’d not be able to be home nearly as much to devote the time and attention needed to dote on their beloved pet, not to mention being able to cultivate the space necessary for the mental bandwidth and physical energy that this kind of caregiving requires of families. 

They’re grateful that they are able to do it themselves. 

I will say that the most common refrain that I typically hear upon meeting with a family is that they feel an intense amount of guilt for not being able to ‘be there’ to handle all of the day-to-day care that their pet needs when they’re recovering from an illness or surgery—or worse, after a life-limiting illness or age-related decline that requires more intense caregiving. They want to do it all, but having a commute to and from a workplace, not to mention needing to be away from home for other obligations makes one feel understandably torn. My tending to things as skillfully and thoughtfully as the family would, and sending reassuring video updates to them is nice and all, but for them to be there as the caregiver... there’s no substitute. 

And yet what has surprised a few of them is an unexpected source of angst: thinking about how different things might look if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. 

If I couldn’t work from home? It scares me to think of how I might have to make decisions that are very different than the ones that I have so far, especially since that would mean forgoing some aspects of his care, or that I might have had to discuss euthanasia already

It’s always easy to go down the road of ‘what if’ and allow the moments of relief, joy and gratitude that often accompany the act of caregiving to be overtaken by a sense of apprehension during any given time. (BrenĂ© Brown does a fantastic job of articulating the concept of ‘foreboding joy’ in her body of work.) The feeling that the handle that you’ve been able to get on the routine, even when it does require tweaking, might become less sure. When you don’t sweat it so much on days when you’re able to spend extra time during breakfast on a rough morning to ensure that your fragile old dog gets all of his medication without your feeling too frazzled—and then the thought creeps in to your mind that if your usual tried-and-true tricks don’t work that one day, will that continue? That fear that like you’re not doing enough or you’re missing a sign that means your pet is ‘ready’, that would before times mildly tug on your psyche. 

These are all very normal expressions of the human condition when we’re caregiving a beloved pet who is edging towards their end. And during a pandemic, when we are already raw from the fallout of being out of routine, missing normal contact with our important humans, all-too-aware that this is a very unprecedented time—these expressions and laments are easily magnified and understandably so. 

Sure, things could be different. But they’re not. 

Yes, this pandemic has lent a mix of circumstances that might be allowing you to be way more physically, emotionally and mentally present for your ailing pet than you ever expected would be possible. Its okay to feel gratitude about that. Give your proverbial magnifying glasses a rest. 


There will be days when things don’t go so smoothly. Your situation could change where you can’t be as available to your pet and re-evaluating how you’re going to manage their palliative and hospice care would be necessary. And guess what? You’ll manage it. You’ll figure things out with regard to your pet, just like you have so many times in the past. And it’ll be okay. I promise you. This time of life with your beloved pet is soaked with enough destabilization, joy-stealing, anticipatory grief and uncertainty. Though it’s a collectively tempting habit in our culture, there’s no need to give that sense of foreboding an opportunity to cast an unwelcome shadow on an emotionally-rich period of life that can and should as be full of joyful moments, warmth and good memories, just the same. 

With over 20 years of experience in pet care, Lorrie Shaw is an Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner, Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter and CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She can be found at lorrieshaw.com.