How does grief differ when a pet is lost due to old age versus a sudden tragedy? Enid Traisman, MSW, CT, and Director of the DoveLewis Pet Loss Support Program, reviews how clients may feel and react after losing a pet in each circumstance.
The death of a companion animal is painful, regardless of how it happens. The sudden death of a pet can be even harder to process when there was no time to plan or prepare. In these situations I often hear pet owners placing unjust guilt and blame upon themselves. They beat themselves up with “what if’s”, “why didn’t I?” and “if only”. They tend to feel as though they failed as their pets’ guardian.
A few ways our hospital staff can help in these sudden and heartbreaking situations is to be sympathetic and understanding. I always recommend gently sharing the cause of death with the guardian and family. If they are up for it, often bringing the pet back to the family can bring a sense of closure. Believe it or not, our imaginations are often much worse than the reality. For example, a cat that was hit by a car can be cleaned up, placed in a natural position, eye’s glued shut and with any disturbing parts covered with a blanket. Yes it will be emotional for the family, but this is a normal and healthy response. If the family rejects this invitation, they can be offered a photo or lock of fur. Sometimes a simple note or memento can be placed with the pet’s body before it is prepared for aftercare.
Another painful situation can happen when a guardian brings in an old or terminally ill pet, knowing that the humane recommendation may be euthanasia. The family may have already been preparing themselves for this decision, or if their pet has been hiding a majority of their pain, they may be surprised at the discovery of a disease that may be too late to treat.
When faced with the emotions and fears of choosing to euthanize, it is not uncommon for the guardian to seem upset and confused. In these situations, I encourage our hospital staff to provide owners time with their pets before the procedure. If the veterinarian believes the pet is in pain or distraught, they may recommend pain management and/or sedation. It is extremely important that the veterinarian clearly communicate the effect the medication will have on the pet prior to the euthanasia decision. Too often, I hear people share in group that their pet was taken out of the room alert and brought back completely sedated or more agitated as a result of the medication. This surprise robs people the opportunity to share their last emotions with their pet and can often be avoided with clear communication.
For many people, choosing euthanasia is a tug of war between love and logic. It is a double-edged sword; they don’t want their pet to suffer but they also don’t want to lose their pet. It can help to assure them that euthanasia comes from the Greek term meaning a “good death”, a death without pain and suffering.
I encourage our hospital staff to share anecdotally (rather than telling them what they should do) how other people have found it helpful to cradle their pet’s head in their hands. To speak lovingly to them as the veterinarian gives the injection and that the transition from life to death is very quick and very subtle. Some people appreciate extra time with their pet’s body for closure.
Feelings of guilt are a normal part of the grieving process, regardless of how the pet is lost. I believe we all do the best we can, with what we know, at the time we know it. I encourage people to go over the chain of events that led to the loss in real time and eventually they will realize that they made decisions with a loving heart, never wanting any pain or fear for their beloved pet. Providing sympathetic support, a safe place to be with their pet/pet’s body and a non-judgmental support will be a gift for these heartbroken people.