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Anticipatory Grief in Shelter Workers

Dr. Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., PSYETA

This is the first in a series of brief articles dealing with loss, grief, and mourning, emotions which are all too familiar to shelter workers. They are primarily a result of the unpleasant practice of euthanasia-a topic I will discuss at a later date, after laying this groundwork.

Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief or mourning is a natural response to a situation where there is a known fatal outcome. We see this kind of grief in those who anticipate the death of a terminally ill loved one. They know the death is going to occur, and they begin to grieve before it actually happens. While anticipatory grief is not likely to reduce the impact of the loss at the time of actual death, it does provide a time and way to work out the relationship between an individual and his or her loved one. It allows bonds to be renewed, refreshed, enjoyed and deepened. It is a time to work out unfinished business and to create positive memories.

For shelter workers, anticipatory grief occurs primarily when you know that an animal in your care will be euthanized.

How we deal with this anticipated loss and work through it varies between workers. Some don’t show their emotions; others seem to fall apart. No response to anticipatory grief is rare, but if grief interferes with your ability to function, you need to find a better way to express it.

One way of dealing with anticipatory grief at the shelter is by distancing yourself emotionally from the situation. This response can serve shelter workers well, as long as it doesn’t lead them to isolate themselves and become emotionally frozen. If you are having thoughts about “being strong” in dealing with an anticipated loss of an animal, you may be distancing yourself too much.

Perhaps the most positive response to anticipatory grief is providing extra comfort , kindness or contact to the animal whose anticipated loss you mourn. In this way, you acknowledge the grief and create positive memories in much the same way you would refresh and deepen your bonds with a human loved one who is terminally ill.

Grief is a healthy emotion and honors the one for whom we grieve, so make it positive!

Kenneth J. Shapiro, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Editor of Society and Animals and Coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

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