In my last journal post I talked about the challenges that caregivers face, especially when it comes to taking care of themselves as well as the patients in need, and about recognizing our limits as caregivers. I also promised to talk at more length about some of the options available for support as caregivers face emotionally trying situations, and I’m going to do that now.
Loss of a loved one, no matter what their species, is a painful and challenging situation for everyone, and especially when we’re caring for a loved one in a hospice situation, that grieving process doesn’t necessarily begin at death. The downside of having extra time to plan and prepare is having time to anticipate and worry. And while there may be some people out there lucky enough to have no practical limits on their finances or their time, ultimately everyone has emotional limits. We all feel loss, and fear, and grief, and we all handle these feelings differently and react to them differently – and we all need support at some point in that process.
And added to this is the fact that we each bring our own history to a given situation, coloring our thoughts, actions, and emotional responses. A pet may be a last connection with a lost family member, making decisions about saying goodbye even more fraught; at the other end of the spectrum, a person who has struggled with a particular disease themselves or watched another loved one face that diagnosis may have a harder time watching a pet face that same challenge. Ultimately, grief, depression, and anxiety are all very real and important problems that we face, and it’s important to have a support structure in place – and to have the courage and strength to reach out when you need to and make use of it.
Supportive friends and family are a wonderful resource, if you have people in your life who recognize the importance of the human-animal bond and who respect and honor your decisions about your pet’s care. Reaching out to these people can be a life-saver, whether their support takes the form of a shoulder to cry on, an evening of pet-sitting so that you can have a break from responsibility, or someone to accompany you to appointments and keep you company.
If you’re a religious person, spiritual leaders can also be a valuable source of support, strength, and wisdom. They may also know of other community resources or support groups.
Pet Loss Support Hotlines can be incredibly helpful. Even if you have supportive people in your life, it can be helpful to talk to someone who is outside of your situation, trained in support, and is there for the express purpose of helping and listening to you. Even if your pet hasn’t passed, the volunteers staffing these lines can help if you’re struggling with grief, uncertainty, or questions about what happens next.
Your veterinarian can also be of aid in this process – it’s important to let them know how you’re feeling, so that they can take that into consideration when determining the best treatment plan for your pet. Our job is to help take care of every living thing in this situation, both people and pets. If you feel that your veterinarian isn’t able to answer all of your questions, or to give enough time and attention to your emotional needs, it may help to enlist the aid of a hospice practitioner.
Ultimately, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, or having trouble coping with your situation, there are also counselors and therapists who specialize in grieving, loss, and bereavement support. The emotional challenges around death and loss are very real, and can be very challenging, and there is no shame or stigma in needing help in the course of dealing with these things. And always, always, if you are feeling despair, hopelessness, or overwhelming depression, call a suicide prevention hotline. You cannot take care of anyone else if you do not take care of yourself first.
For those of you reading this in Massachusetts, I have links to local support options on my ‘Resources‘ page. If you’re visiting from afar, a search on pet loss support, a call to your veterinarian, state SPCA, or the nearest veterinary school can provide resources nearby. And, should anyone need it, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
It’s okay to grieve – but you don’t have to push through it alone.