My thoughts on pet loss

There's no way around the fact that if you love your pets and value their presence in your life, their death is emotionally difficult. The end-of-life process comes with difficult decisions, responsibilities, and a range of emotions. It is becoming more accepted that pets are an integral and important part of people's lives, and more information is becoming available for owners regarding end-of-life issues and the grief associated with a pet's death. Using these resources to prepare for a pet's death may help ease the way.

Hopefully the information here will help you prepare for your pet's death, give you some ideas to think about, help you start a conversation with your vet, or help you know that what you're feeling is normal.

Prepare and know your options

It's becoming common for people to plan for their own funeral. I think it's important for pet owners to learn about what options are available to them and do some thinking about what they might want to do when their pet nears the end of its life. Having a discussion with your vet about euthanasia or end-of-life care is important. Your vet can prepare you for how long a terminally ill pet may have to live, can be objective about your pet's condition, can provide medications or ideas on making your pet comfortable until the end, and can provide euthanasia if that's what you decide to do. If finances are an issue and you cannot afford euthanasia, your local government animal shelter probably provides low-cost euthanasia services.

Talking with your vet, calling pet cemeteries, and reading online resources can help you prepare and decide what you will do when your pet dies. Do you want your vet to take care of the body without having it returned to you, do you want your pet's body or ashes buried, do you want your pet cremated (alone or with other pets), do you want the ashes returned, do you want a special urn or container for the remains, do you want a paw print or a lock of fur? It's easy to see there are a lot of questions to think about.

These questions are difficult to think about when your pet is healthy and you are not emotionally distraught. But the advance planning will help you deal with your pet's death without having to make uninformed spur of the moment decisions, then wishing you had done something differently. Having some ideas about burial or cremation may be particularly helpful if you find yourself dealing with the unexpected death of your pet.

Knowing how to help your pet whatever it may be

It's easy to get veterinary care for common pets and livestock. But having hamsters and fish taught me something very important. If you're going to own animals you need to know how to prevent or alleviate their suffering. One of our hamsters needed to be euthanized because his back legs stopped working. We could not let him starve to death and knew we needed to intervene. I was dismayed at how difficult it was to find a vet who would euthanize a hamster. We live in a large urban area with several veterinary hospitals but had to drive 15 miles to another town to find a vet who would help our little hammy.

If you're a hobbyist with something like fish, you're probably on your own and you need to know how to end a dying fish's life as compassionately as possible. It might be "just a fish" but it's a living creature you purchased, provided a habitat for, fed, looked after, and now you may have to know how to end its life as painlessly as possible. We've used two techniques: ice water and clove oil. 

Making a difficult decision

It is an extraordinary responsibility to decide to assist a pet through its death. 'Euthanasia' comes from the Greek meaning 'eu' = good, normal, happy, pleasing; and 'thanatos' = death. For me, it has been a privilege to make that decision for my pets and to be with them through their final moments. I consider it an honor to be the last thing they feel or sense in their life. Some owners believe they do not have the right end a pet's life; and others are so distraught that they cannot be present when their pet is euthanized. Whatever you decide is best for you and your pet, it's probably going to be a little less traumatic if you've given it at least a little thought before your pet is seriously ill.

Rituals

Most religions and cultures have rituals surrounding death. By following a prescribed set of time-honored actions we have a sense of doing what's necessary and proper. But there is no ritual for a pet's death and this leaves many people feeling lost. However, this lack of ritual allows you to create your own. You may want to groom your pet's fur after its death; wrap it in a special blanket; send it for cremation or burial with a special toy, treat or photo of you. You may want to privately light a candle, read the Rainbow Bridge poem, or participate in an on-line ceremony. Your religion may have prayers for animals or death that will comfort you. Maybe you want your close friends to gather and share stories about your pet. Whatever ritual you decide on is the right one for you.

Grief and other people

I've been fortunate to never have been told "It was just a pet" after the death of my cats, hamsters, or dog. Everyone who knows me knows I love and value my pets as sentient, feeling, unique beings who are worthy of life, love, and happiness. Granted, I don't share my feelings with casual friends or coworkers, but confide only in a few people or maybe in on on-line forum where the people don't know my identity. I think most pet lovers are in a similar situation and keep their grief hidden because they know not everyone shares their compassion for animals. This can make it difficult to progress through the grieving process. If a human family member dies, no one is surprised if you become upset, even at work or in casual conversation. But when it's a pet, the same emotions are often seen as "silly" or misplaced. So you hide your emotions and only allow yourself to experience them in the privacy of your home. I think this slows the grieving process because you're not just grieving; you're trying to grieve "properly".

People bring their own beliefs, feelings, and experiences to every situation and they may try to influence your grieving. They may say things to suggest you're grieving to hard, too long, not enough, or somehow incorrectly. Everyone's grieving process is different and each pet's death brings different emotions. I've experienced this with our elderly dog's death. Some people expected me to be grief-stricken or barely able to face each day without him. One friend was devastated when her dog died so she thought that must be how I was feeling. But these were not the feelings I had. I politely said his death was sad and difficult, but I was adjusting.

Each death is a different and brings a different grieving process

The death of each of our pets has been a very different experience. The death of our pets occurred over 6 years, during which time I was in different personal situations. Job changes, getting married, having a new home - these and other life stages can affect your overall emotional state, how a death effects you, and how you cope with it. I experienced emotions ranging from deep sadness, being defeated, feeling lost, guilt, self-doubt, and even relief.

When I learned my 8-year-old cat Smokey had an incurable cancer I was devastated. Her life wasn't going to be as long as I expected and I felt cheated of the years we wouldn't have together. After her death it took nearly 6 months before I could look at a cat that resembled her without crying. During the 9 months she lived with cancer the thought that she was dying was always in my mind, but I refused to let it overshadow the fact that Smokey still had a life to live and I was determined to provide the best end-of-life care I could.

When my cat Ed died at ~16 years old, I was deeply upset because this kitty loved and needed me. After adopting him as an abandoned cat, I spent years teaching him that nothing would hurt him again. He was laughably needy and took every opportunity to cuddle or sleep on me. I also felt defeated. We had been successfully managing his renal failure but he developed an unrelated neurological issue that debilitated him. I was upset that we wouldn't be able to try to treat this condition or even know what it was. But my grief was tempered by the knowledge that he lived a long life filled with love and happiness.

When Felix died of cancer at 14 years old, I was heartbroken. He was the first cat I adopted and he was "my precious". He began our furry family of three cats and now they were all gone. Although I was somewhat prepared for his death because he also had cancer, I was not prepared for it to happen as suddenly as it did - as an adverse effect of a chemotherapy treatment. I felt guilty for possibly hastening his death by deciding to try a different drug. I also second-guessed that decision, despite knowing we made the decision with his best interest in mind and knowing that whatever we did, we were at best delaying his inevitable death.

When our Golden Retriever Bentley died shortly after his 17th birthday, we were sad our goofy boy would no longer be with us, but we were not grief stricken. Bentley's death was in some ways a relief. Life had become much less enjoyable for him over the last few months and he often needed our help with normal daily living. It was heart wrenching to see him struggle, and we knew his death freed him from pain and limitations. It hasn't been but a few weeks since he's gone, and it's still bittersweet to see a young, robust dog, especially a Golden Retriever. But our boy had an amazingly long life and that tempers our sadness.

Even our smaller critters' deaths brought some degree of sadness. Our hamsters amused us and added interest and value to our lives. Even some of our fish have been interesting and amusing to interact with and it was sad to see them go.

Honoring your pet's memory

Some people display their pet's urn while others keep the urn safely tucked away somewhere. Some people set up a little shrine with their pet's ashes, collar, toys, or a candle. Some have photo albums, videos, or web pages. Some owners don't want a physical reminder of their pet and remove most things from view. Some owners make a charitable donation in memory of their pet. There are no rules about how to honor your pet's memory, just whatever feels right to you.

Sometimes honoring your pet is about your thoughts and feelings. Whether you think of your pet daily, not much at all, fondly, or with a bit of relief that you no longer have that responsibility, it's all normal.

I have several small photos of all our pets displayed in our home. They're not everywhere or displayed with some revered status, but they're noticeable. I'll walk by and say "hi" to Felix or laugh at Ed's big belly. The photos remind me of what unique beings they were and the wonderful times we shared.

When we adopted two new cats shortly after Felix's death I felt maybe I wasn't grieving long enough to honor Felix's memory. But the first three cats had taught me so much and brought so much joy to my life that I thought it would honor their memories to adopt new kitties into our home and give them a fantastic life. I understand how that may not feel like the right decision for others, but it helped me to have new lives to focus on instead of being reminded that we no longer had any cats. It in no way diminished my respect or fond memories of my other cats.

Deciding whether or not to get another pet

Some people want another pet shortly after a pet's death to help them focus on caring for another animal. Others may not feel ready to love another animal right away or don't want the responsibility of pet ownership anymore. It just depends on the person and situation.

After Felix died we didn't intend on getting cats anytime soon and donated the cat perches, beds, and toys to the local animal shelter. We decided to focus our energy on our 16-year old Golden Retriever Bentley. He was still somewhat active and had fun despite the limitations that arthritis imposed. But caring for a senior dog that needs help with daily living can be burdensome, and at times the only reward is knowing you're providing love and comfort to an aging companion. I loved Bentley and accepted the limits on his activity as part of the aging process, but I was missing the joyful exuberance of a young, healthy pet.

About a month after Felix's death we adopted two cats from the local animal shelter. It turned out to be an excellent decision because they lifted our spirits with their kitty antics. They also seemed to rejuvenate Bentley a bit, as he had two new friends to meet, watch, and interact with.

On the other hand, now that Bentley is gone we have no interest in getting another dog. I was not looking to own a dog when Bentley's and my lives crossed paths, but I could not have dreamed for a better dog. I had known him for two years before adopting him and knew that he was perfectly trained, mellow, and my cats would be safe with him. But at this time we don't have time to care for a puppy, and don't want to risk our cats' safety by bringing an adult dog into the house. We've also decided we want some dog-free time, with freedom to stay away from home more than a few hours without having to return to let a dog out, freedom to go on vacation (which we've not done for several years because I didn't think anyone could adequately provide for Bentley's special needs), and freedom from all the other responsibilities of dog ownership.

Other after death issues

One of the things many owners struggle with, especially after caring for a chronically ill pet, is the range of emotions they experience. They may have spent weeks, months, or years caring for a special needs pet. They've been making important decisions for their pet's health, probably have the stress of veterinary expenses, and have probably given up a lot of their free time that they otherwise would have spent with friends or family. All this time they're also experiencing a roller-coaster of emotions, often without support. When their pet dies, they have grief, maybe a sense of relief, and then guilt that they're relieved to not have the burden of care any more. With few outlets to discuss these complex emotions, owners are left trying to cope alone, in online forums, telephone hotlines, or even seeking counseling.

And if you've been caring for a sick pet for a long time, what do you do with all that time you now have on your hands? Your entire focus has been on caring or your pet and now you need to find someplace else to direct all that energy. It's not easy, and it takes time to readjust your thoughts and behaviors when you no longer have your pet. It's important for owners to know this is normal, and many of us have experienced these types of feelings.

Ending with wonderful memories

Pet owners who have experienced a pet's death know that the deep grief or sadness associated with a pet's death just takes time to resolve. There's no right or wrong way to go through this process and I think it's everyone's hope and expectation that their grief is replaced by fond memories of the wonderful time they shared with their pet.

Hopefully my thoughts and experiences have helped you see that a pet's end of life and death can be a very stressful time filled with complex emotions. If you can do some preparation ahead of time, your pet's death may be a little easier to deal with and you'll know that your grief is normal. Please use all the resources that are available, both at your vet's, online, and if needed a grief counselor who is well trained to help you navigate the complex web of emotions that accompany end-of-life issues.