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Ask a Therapist: Dealing with a terminally ill pet

Posted at 1:30 PM, Aug 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-18 16:13:08-04

Therapist Anastasia Pollock answers viewers (anonymous) questions.

Question: Dealing with a Terminally ill pet (dog)  she doesn't seem to be in terrible pain but we have her amped on pain pills. It's just hard to decide to have her put down or to see if she will stay asleep one night. Dealing with a lot of emotions. Then how do we cope with all the reminders of her around the house and the commercials of cute dogs on TV? How do we comfort each other when all the family is sad?  dealing with ages 4-55, we have had her for 11 years.

How to handle the situation: This is a really tough situation. Our pets make their way deep into our hearts and give us so much joy and happiness. It is truly heartbreaking when they are ill and close to the ends of their lives. You are noticing a lot of emotions around this situation, which is normal and healthy. Expect that everyone in the house will move through a kind of rollercoaster of emotions, sometimes several in a short period of time. You are all experiencing the grief process right now, even before her passing.

When dealing with grief, the best thing you can do is to ride the rollercoaster of emotions and give each family member a place to have a voice to express what they are feeling and experiencing. There will be triggers such as the cute animals on commercials you mention. The triggers are painful but allow the grief to flow, which is healthy and this is what will help you to heal and eventually move forward. Common emotions and states of mind that come up with grief are anger, sadness, confusion, gratitude (for having had your dog in your lives), fear, wishing things were different, acceptance of what is happening, and struggling to come to terms with what is happening. Some of these emotions and states of mind may seem in conflict with each other, which is totally normal.

Each family member will move through their grief in their own way and at their own pace. Educate your kids about what to expect and validate their own experiences. Cry together, as a family, as you grieve the passing of your furry family member; laugh together as a family when you think of the good times, and embrace all the in-between emotions along the way. Comfort each other by just allowing emotions to flow without having to stop them. You can hug each other, sit with each other, or just listen to each other. The grief process needs space to fully happen.

It is hard to say whether it is best to help your dog out of her suffering as opposed to allowing her to pass on her own. The adults in the family should discuss this while you observe her quality of life and communicate with her veterinarian. In the meantime, enjoy her as a family. Set aside time for the whole family to spend time with her while you still have her.

When the time comes, have a memorial service for her and involve all your family members. Each family member can share his or her favorite memory of your beloved dog and you can have a little ceremony to honor what a great family member she was. This will help your family honor her (because I believe all pets deserve to be honored) and will also give you a space to honor your grief.

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