Pet Loss – Grieving for Pets
Losing a cherished pet can be a very painful experience. Many non-pet owners do not understand the grief that one can go through when losing a pet because they underestimate the magnitude of the human-animal bond. Grieving pet owners often feel like they have no one to turn to and no one who understands their grief. They are left to wonder if they are normal to feel so upset and are often embarrassed to admit how they feel.
For many owners, their pet is often regarded as a member of their family, so losing their pet is like losing a close family member. In fact, of the people who share their lives with pets, 70% consider their pets to be their children. A pet can represent many things to a pet owner. Some owners view their pets as best friends. Others see them as children or a source of support during a divorce or other life obstacles. They can remind us of happier times or be bridges to the past. For disabled individuals, pets can be trained to be the eyes or ears of a blind or hearing-impaired person. For many people living with chronic illnesses, pets are not only a source of comfort, but they are reasons to continue living.
One of the most difficult decisions a pet owner must face is the decision to euthanize their animal when it is terminally ill or suffering. It is an important and emotional decision that may be a very difficult to make in times of stress, fear or frustration. A person may feel regret after the decision is made, or that they could have offered more to their animal. It is important to remember that euthanasia gives the pet owner the option of relieving his/her pet’s pain and provide a peaceful death.
There are mixed emotions involved in the euthanasia decision. Ending the pain and suffering of a pet is a positive aspect, but the thought of living without that cherished pet is a negative one. Feelings of regret are common, and may be due to making a decision before working through these feelings. The decision of euthanasia is assisted by the veterinarian, who will help guide you with your decision to find the ‘right time’. Many owners with pets that are terminally ill find themselves struggling with the ‘right time’ to euthanize. For example, a chronically ill pet may seem to be going downhill for a few consecutive days, but as soon as the owner books the euthanasia appointment, the animal seems to brighten up and appear better. No one can dictate when the exact ‘correct’ time to euthanize is because every animal and the relationship you have with that animal is unique. Euthanasia is often the most humane option and the best one you could offer the animal at the moment. Remember that you gave the animal a life full of love and you did the best you could do for the animal. Some owners feel they were being selfish when they made the decision. For example, they wanted to end not only their pet’s suffering, but their own as well. These feelings are commonly felt, and are not selfish or inhumane.
When dealing with the loss of a pet, it is important to recognize signs of grief in other family members as well – especially children. The death of a pet is often the first loss that a child encounters. Society tends to shelter children from issues surrounding death and dying in order to protect them from a difficult experience. However, when children do not understand where their cherished pet has gone, accepting their loss may be even more difficult and excludes them from the decision-making process. It takes away their right to say goodbye and ignores their need for closure.
Understanding the relationship the child has with the pet is the first step in helping them through pet loss. A pet may be a child’s best friend, or source of confidence, support, and protection. Loss of a pet is a family ordeal. Adults can feel just as upset as their children, and often the best way to overcome such feelings is to talk about it with the children and smile about all the good times. You want to create a safe, secure environment in which the children can ask questions, receive answers, and express their feelings. Open and honest communication is important in any relationship, but it is especially crucial during a child’s first pet loss. Talking about their grief gives children the ability to face their own feelings when experiencing a loss.
Many people create memorials for their pet to help them through the grieving process. Memorials may take the form of small keepsakes such as a name tag or collar. Others prefer to have the pet’s ashes in an urn and keep it in their home or bury it in the backyard. Another method of honouring the deceased pet is in the form of donations to animal shelters or societies to help other animals in need. Some people find it helpful to express their feelings in writing, such as through poetry or through an online pet cemetery such as the one that can be found here: http://www.pets.ca/petsites/index_cemetery.php
After the loss of a pet, many owners choose to adopt or purchase a new pet as soon as they are ready. Others insist that they will never own another animal. The decision to get a new pet is a personal one. There is no fixed time that one should wait before bringing a new pet home because every relationship is different. It depends solely on when you and your family are ready.
It is important to respect the fact that each human-animal bond is unique. No new animal will replace the ones we loved. We can choose to form a new bond with another pet, but we are not simply replacing the one lost. Therefore, one should not rush into buying a new pet in hopes that it will help overcome their grief. One must come to terms with the loss and be ready to accept a new pet. Otherwise, the new pet will not live up to expectations because it will constantly remind the grieving owner how he/she is different from the deceased pet. These new pets will often be neglected, abandoned or given away. This will result in more feelings of grief and/or guilt.
When you are ready for a new pet, what type of pet should you choose? Some people feel that getting the same breed is a form of replacement and therefore they get a totally different breed to avoid comparisons. Other people enjoyed certain characteristics of the previous pet and want to get a pet that is as close to the old one as possible. This is a personal decision that varies with each pet owner.
Once a person obtains a new pet, sometimes they feel that they are being disloyal to the deceased pet. It is not silly or abnormal to feel this way. In fact, many people take comfort in talking to their new pet about their old pet. For example, “Buddy and I used to walk along this path every day”. Or show the new pet a picture of the old pet as a means of ‘introducing’ them. Avoid comparing the two pets. Remember, no two pets are the same. As the unique characteristics and personality of the new pet emerge, a new bond will slowly begin to form. The lost pet will never be forgotten. Instead, memories will be filled with good times and the life that they shared with you.
Besides confiding in other pet owners that understand your grief, there are several resources to turn to if you need help coping with your loss. There are many books dedicated to helping owners cope with pet loss, and there are some directed specifically to children as well. Support could also be found with the Pet Loss Support Hotline. This is a free service administered by Ontario Veterinary College students who are trained to listen to and support pet owners through the loss of a pet. They can be contacted at 519-824-4120 extension 53694, Tuesday to Thursday 6-9 pm EST. Information is also available on their website at www.ovc.uoguelph.ca/petloss .
It is perfectly normal to feel upset over the loss of a cherished pet. As with any loss, people require different amounts of time to recover. Your cherished pet cannot be replaced, but one can take comfort in the happy memories and be reminded of what a good life that the animal shared with you.
By Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer