Many people who lose a beloved pet may be first and foremost surprised at the intensity of their feelings of grief. This blog is designed to help answer some of your questions about pet loss and how to cope with its effect on your life. I am speaking as a therapist but also someone who lost her best friend, a black Great Dane named Sophia, five months ago. Great Danes don’t live as long as smaller dogs, and as much as we tried to prepare – her death hit our whole family like a freight train. While I didn’t find a lot of objective, professional support, I did find that other pet owners who had been through the same thing helped me and my family more than anything. They got it. They didn’t think we were crazy for grieving. Some of them grieved, too. Not everyone will understand your pain, and that’s all right. But thousands of people will.
So let’s talk about what we as pet owners experience when we have lost a beloved pet.
What seems like the first question most of us have is “How do you know when it is time?” It seems quite often pets will hang on at the end of their lives, obviously suffering. We don’t want to let them go, but we don’t want them to suffer, either. I have heard that they hold on for us, and maybe this is true, I don’t know. I do know making the call to the vet when it becomes clear they are suffering and no recovery is possible is easily one of the hardest calls you will ever make. If your pet is seriously ill, talk candidly with your veterinarian about options. Spend time with your pet. When my Sophia was sick, one of my friends said “Ask her to tell you what to do. Ask her to tell you when it is time.” So I did. And the next day, she was barely responsive and in obvious pain. That was the day we took her in. She told us, and we listened – even though it was not what we wanted. Basically, my understanding is this – if your pet is eating, eliminating, playing, relatively pain free, and participating in daily life as always, it’s probably not time. However, when you notice that they are withdrawing from life, when routine daily activities are no longer possible, when they are lethargic or in pain, it is time to talk to your vet about what to do.
Sometimes an animal is lost due to an accident or a sudden illness, and they don’t make it through. In this case you may not have had to make the call to have a pet euthanized, but you are still left with normal feelings of bereavement, such as sadness, guilt, anger, and denial. You may wonder if you could have done something to prevent the loss. You may feel terribly guilty, or even depressed. These are normal reactions to the loss of someone you love.
Coming home to your pet’s leash, bowls, collar, and bed can be extremely painful. Ask yourself, and your family, what you need to do with the reminders of your pet’s daily presence in your life. Maybe you need to put his or her things away for now, if that helps. We put our dog’s collar and tags away, as everything else was also used by our other dog so it didn’t pack as much emotion as if the things had been hers alone. A few months after her death, I made a shadow box with her collar, tags, and a few pictures. I am glad I didn’t throw anything away, but at the time it was so painful to see that I almost wanted to.
Let’s talk about children in the home, and how to talk with them about a pet’s death. With any death, it’s important not to say your pet went to sleep, or went away. Death is a part of life, and age appropriate honesty is the best way to talk to children. Allow your children to ask questions, and to grieve in their own way. Don’t expect them not to cry, or tell them to get over it. The same is true for adults.
If your pet is euthanized, you will probably need to decide whether or not you should be there. For us, there was no choice – we had to be there and I am glad we were. But I will tell you that it is heartbreaking to say goodbye. It helped to see that she was peaceful and no longer in pain. If you have the chance, most experts recommend that your other pets are present as well, to see the process and say goodbye in their own way. We lost our cat Chester about 4 years ago, and had an amazing vet come to our home. She allowed Chester to lie in his favorite sunny spot on the sofa, and he was surrounded by his human and animal family. Each of the pets came to him after he had passed, and gently sniffed him and spent time next to his body.
What you do with your pet’s remains is also a personal decision. Some people have their pets cremated or buried, others dispose of the remains in less individualized ways. Whatever you do will be right for you. The main thing is to allow yourself to grieve in whatever way makes sense for you. It hurts terribly to lose a beloved pet. I believe the love they give us is worth it. For now, be gentle with yourself, talk about how you feel, and allow yourself to go through the grieving process.
When I was putting this project together, I cast a wide net as always, asking for input from friends, clients, other therapists, and the public. I could not have anticipated the responses I got. I have been teary-eyed every day this week reading your stories of love and loss. Ultimately, they were all stories of hope, as well. I added them to my website here: http://www.fletchertherapy.com/petloss.htm . I hope you will visit. What helped me most – people who understood my grief – may help you as well.
Thank you for reading, and as always, I welcome your comments below.
The Rainbow Bridge