This is the final installment in a series about promoting quality of life and enhancing your bond with your pet through all stages, but particularly at the end of life. Parts I-III cover birth through healthy adulthood, illness and end-of-life. Here I share some ideas to help yourself before and after the loss of a pet.
I couldn’t stop the thought when I saw the disaster before me. Scattered everywhere throughout our open-plan living room / dining room / kitchen / entryway were chewed-up bits of plastic bags, papers, wrappers, and other random things that wind up in the kitchen trash. The trash can now lay on its side, several feet from where it belonged. And in its midst slouched my Labrador, eyes cast sheepishly downward, tail and ears drooping. My life will be so much easier, I thought, when you are gone.
For more than a decade, I’d barely kept one step ahead in keeping him out of the trash, litter boxes, cat food, and pantry. I had been blessed with the endless sweeping of dog hair, toileting accidents, midnight vomiting episodes, and the aftermath of numerous noontime jailbreaks taken to sample the delights of American suburbia. The secretaries at my kids’ school still talk about the day, two years ago, when he trotted nonchalantly into the administration offices and plopped himself down on the floor, panting amiably, as if this was all perfectly normal and, in fact, they should have been expecting him.
He has complicated my life and I cannot lie: it will be easier around here without him. You will not be surprised to learn, however, that I have gladly opened my wallet and agreed to whatever was needed when he has been seriously ill. Even with the generosity of my colleagues, we have spent more than I want to admit on specialized care in his old age. Oral fixation, voracious appetite, and wanderlust notwithstanding, he’s a good boy: agreeable, gentle and sweet; has never met a person he didn’t love; never barks; and never minds intrusions on his personal space by children, a particularly amorous cat, and the steady stream of foster animals who have shared his home.
He’s been with us since before the birth of our oldest child, has been part of our lives longer than our jobs or our house or many of our dear friends. He patiently rode 3000 miles in the backseat of a compact car when we moved, and another 3000 miles in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet when we moved yet again. He has friends all over the country who follow his progress and express their love and affection when I share updates and photos. He’s more family to us than some of our family.
And here lies the terrible irony of welcoming pets into our homes and allowing them to weave themselves into the tapestry of our lives. Unlike raising a child, who will someday leave in pursuit of opportunity, fortune, or love, this child of ours will inevitably depart our world in a much more permanent and jarring way, and always before we are ever truly ready. It is a grief unlike any other, one that may be difficult for some to understand, but nonetheless very much real.
Easing the transition for your family
Nothing will make losing a loved one easy, but there are ways to bring a little comfort and peace during a difficult time. Accepting the support of family and friends, the ones who are sensitive to the magnitude of this loss, will help you heal. Surround yourself with loved ones who understand, and don’t worry about those that don’t. If you need more help, consider seeking out a spiritual advisor or grief counselor who appreciates the strength of the human-animal bond.
You don’t need to wait until a companion has passed away to look for help. Anticipatory grief, as well as the emotional burden that may accompany caring for a pet at the end of life, can be difficult to bear.
If children are close to the pet, they may need some extra help and TLC in processing this major life change. This may be their first encounter with death. What you say will depend on your family’s beliefs about dying and the afterlife, but here are a some guidelines that apply to anyone:
- Avoid euphemisms such as “put to sleep” or “put down.” They may be taken literally and frighten the child.
- Be honest about the permanency of death, even with younger children who may not understand. A well-intended attempt at softening the blow may only make the pain worse when the pet does not return.
- Make sure they know that it’s normal and OK to be sad.
- Instead of trying to say the right thing, just listen, and don’t be afraid of silence. A good way to express empathy is to reflect back their feelings or words (e.g. “You must be really sad right now” or “So you’re worried about how you’ll feel after he’s gone?”)
What else can you do?
There are many books available for adults and children coping with loss. I haven’t read them all (yet) but have heard good feedback about these books in particular:
- I Wish I Could Hold Your Hand by Dr. Pat Palmer
- Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss by Claudia Jewett Jarrati
- I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
- Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet by Moira Anderson Allen
- The Pet Loss Companion by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez
Creating a Memorial
Above all, honor your pet’s memory in a way that feels authentic to you. Here are some ideas:
- Keep mementos, such as a clay paw print, a collar, a small snippet of fur, or a favorite toy or blanket. We have a food bowl that belonged to our first cat, appropriately inscribed with “Cat from Hell.” (It was true. We loved her to pieces anyway.) The bowl sits next to her cremains on a windowsill near where we sleep. I have seen families make keepsake boxes, shadowboxes, or other little memorials that can be tucked away or displayed. Collages, scrapbooks, and journals are other nice ways to collect and keep remembrances.
- You can create an online memorial by sharing stories and pictures on a number of websites, including our Memorials page here at Arms of Aloha, which all are welcome to sign up and use for free.
- If you live in Hawaii, you can honor a pet in print by sending a photo to Island Dog Magazine. You can upload your submission directly or send it by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Say a few words…
I have had the honor of attending some beautiful pet memorial services. They may be as simple as holding hands and saying a quick prayer, or as elaborate as a formal wake with visiting hours. I vividly recall helping a much beloved old family dog make her transition under a glorious blue sky amidst a large multigenerational family gathering.
I keep a small flock of chickens, and when one passes away, my children have created their own simple ritual. They adorn her with flowers that they pick from the gardens, thank her for all the wonderful eggs, and say goodbye.
Stories have great healing power. I am honored to have them shared with me, a relative stranger, in the moments surrounding a pet’s passing: funny stories, intimate stories, profound stories, mundane stories. All of them are fascinating and beautiful in their own right, and a little of the weight in the room seems to be lifted as they are told.
Should you get another pet?
If and when the time feels right for you. No one else can decide this on your behalf.
Crying is OK.
Almost everybody who calls me will shed some tears at some point during the conversation, and almost everyone apologizes for crying. It’s OK to cry. It’s also OK not to cry. We all grieve differently, your veterinarian has certainly seen it all, and you have my blessing to not waste time and energy worrying about whether your expression of grief is “appropriate.”
This is just a sampling of many available resources. Pet loss hotlines are near and dear to my heart – I volunteered on one as a student. Consider these groups, hotlines, and sites for a friendly ear or voice in your time of need.
If you live on Oahu, The Hawaiian Humane Society offers a free pet loss support group, currently meeting the first Tuesday of every month. Call 1-808-356-2222 to attend.
The University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support Hotline: 1-800-565-1526
Iowa State University Pet Loss Support Hotline: 1-888-478-7574
Additional hotlines, websites and resources can be found by visiting http://www.petlosshelp.org/bereavementresources.html
I hope this series of articles has helped prepare or guide you through a time that can be emotionally challenging, but also rewarding. Click “education” at the top or bottom of this page for more, and be notified of new content by subscribing to our email list or following us on Facebook (see the right column).
Did you see the other parts of this series?
Part I – Steps you can take at any life stage to prepare for end-of-life
Part II – What to do when a terminal diagnosis has been made
Part III – End-of-life planning and decision-making
This Page – Addressing your own emotional needs