“Are you just waiting for her to die?”
That was a question that two people—one who I’m closely tied to—asked me when I spoke about plans I was sketching together to travel to a place I’d never been. It was 2015. Puerto Rico had been on my mind. And as a late-bloomer when it had come to traveling, much less doing so alone, it had become an essential mental well-being tool. It also, ironically, helped to squash paralyzing social anxiety that had plagued me into adulthood.
I’d not traveled in the final few months of Gretchen’s life. And as a sole human in the household, I was her main caregiver.
Gretchen was my nearly 16 year-old St. Bernard/shepherd mix. I’m quite certain in imagining the gasp (16!) that invariably escaped from your lips that I need not go into too much detail about how heavy the caregiving was for a geriatric, large breed dog with advanced osteoarthritis, a touch of renal disease and had been recently treated for hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Gretchen was never the same after the latter and in fact that was the diagnosis that became the tipping point of a steeper decline over three months: a touchy GI tract, stress impacted her gut more easily and many of her favorite things to eat were now off limits.
We’d been traversing ever-so-gently into this phase of our life together (I was also caring for my geriatric cat, Silver, who had his own share of issues, but I digress). And with the help of a mental health professional specializing the needs of humans immersed in a life circumstance such as this, a plan was crafted. A plan which supported me in navigating the process of being a caregiver to pets with ever-increasing needs, and the expected anticipatory grief, the frustration, the decision-making, the unknown, re-framing/re-imagining my relationships with both Gretchen and Silver—and preparing for life after both of them died. Especially Gretchen, I won’t lie. Heart dog, soul dog… whatever you want to coin it as, she was it. My ride or die being. I never saw her as my child. She was a dog, and I felt I needed to honor that. Gretchen was at that point more like my smart, sassy, independent-minded elderly aunt who never married and needed tending in her dotage. She loathed being fussed over, like someone else I know.
Anyway, I knew it’d be hard. I’d have a very new life. I knew I’d be a different person. I’d have a different identity: I’d not be a dog guardian anymore. And I wasn’t sure what any of that would look like or feel like, because I’d spent over a third of my life living in that identity that would be unwillingly stripped from me. Yes, it scared me a little. But I was more afraid of how things would unfold if I didn’t give a lot of thought to what life would be like after. Because going from a life where your pets are naturally the first thing you think of in the morning and the last before your feet lift off the floor and into bed, to having their needs increase so much to the point that being away from home for four hours is a big deal, that’s a lot. And then when you’re aware, even though it feels unfathomable, that all of that will, in a blink of an eye—vanish. And you’ll not need to think about heavy caregiving, or medication refills or ‘what will they be willing to eat today?’, or anything else. And your instinct is that your life will develop a natural sense of emptiness when all that comes with loving and caring for a pet edging toward their end-of-life comes to a physical end.
And then it does. And for how long, that depends. And it’s not unusual for that to ebb and flow.
Back to the question I was asked.
‘Are you just waiting for her to die?’
I bristled at it. And then I softened. Because if nothing else, I had no mental bandwidth to get curious about what they meant. Nor to help either person feel comfortable with how I was navigating through a brutal time.
Because most of the time, that’s what those who are expressing things like that need. Or because it’s weird for them to hold two ideas in their hands at a time—that one can be fully engaged in the heavy caregiving and anticipatory grief while realistically looking to a future where their pet will be gone and not coming back—because they seem completely incompatible. Or because they feel like acknowledging the fact that life will go on is a kind of a betrayal of the love one has for their pet.
I could also see how easy it is for others to mistake a healthy coping tool for rushing through a period of life that’s full of unpleasantness and gut wrenching changes while full of love all at once. Or stuffing it down so it doesn’t need to be felt because it’s too hard.
So, was I just waiting for Gretchen to die? No. Of course not.
I couldn’t stop her dying from happening, I could not save her despite the advances in vet medicine. Nor was her dying going to be a failure on my part or anyone else’s, or of vet medicine. But what I could do, was control how I reacted and coped with the process, and the outcome. And I knew I’d not be moving on, but moving forward. I was envisioning what life would look life after she died and planning for it. I was taking care of myself, and my mental health.
I was accepting the inevitable. And that I would never not grieve Gretchen.
So, I responded with that. And then, I guess, they understood.
That looking ahead and giving the reality of what life would be like some much-needed space to stretch its legs came naturally to me. That, along with my having good instincts about how I might respond to things along the way given my history, how I used my existing coping tools, and how to adjust and gain additional healthy strategies as needed. Planning the trips I was going to take after experiencing two deaths in what would be a short 10-month span was an integral part of that. As I later discovered in my professional training in Grief Companioning and animal hospice, that looking ahead is a tool that is used in working with guardian caregivers when we are supporting them in navigating through a tender-but-brutal time.
It’s perfectly normal and natural if your thoughts move into a direction of thinking ahead to a time when you’ll have far less to think about, to manage, with a pet who is in decline. You don’t love them any less, you’re not betraying them, and you are still the very best guardian caregiver you’re able to be because you’re taking care of yourself.
And yes, Puerto Rico was amazing.
With over 20 years of experience in pet care and the past 8 of those focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner and Certified Fear Free Professional. She is CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC and can be found at lorrieshaw.com.