Dr. Angela Hickey, our in-house vet, and a qualified psychotherapist, discusses how to approach the death of a pet.
We each form a unique bond with our animals, caring for and sharing so many experiences with them as part of our day to day life. Our feelings of loss will also be unique, based on our particular experiences with the pet that is dying, and the nature of the bond of attachment we have formed with them.
Part 1 – Before
As the words of Marty Tousley state:
“It is a myth to think that dealing with the death of a pet is easier than dealing with the death of a human loved one.”
Loss of a loved companion can cause a severe form of psychological stress and learning about the impending death of a pet can be a very challenging and stressful experience. If we get a diagnosis of a terminal, life threatening illness like cancer at least we may have some time to prepare for the death. Similarly, if our pet is ageing and weakening we have time to adjust to the impending loss and be somewhat prepared. Bereavement is a transition, a period of challenge and readjustment to a big change in our lives. Anticipating the loss may help us to slowly adjust to the impending loss but we still tend to hold on to hope while our pet is still alive.
Quality of Life
Your vet can help advise you when further investigations and interventions may not serve your pet and that the time for palliative and supportive care has arrived. Accepting that there is no ‘cure’ is a first stage towards accepting the imminent death of your pet. The main issue now is comfort, especially pain relief. Ensuring that your pet is enjoying the best quality of day to day life as possible now becomes the main aim. Other complementary modalities may be useful, like Veterinary Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Pet Massage, Tellington Touch etc. The more we focus on this stage as ‘end of life care’ the more we will be prepared for when our pet finally dies.
Death is not a Clinical Event
It is vital, as you approach the end of your pet’s life, that you don’t feel powerless and that you are included in any decisions that need to be made. Your vet is key in providing for the medical needs of your pet but remember death is not a ‘clinical event’. Ideally you can work together as a team to meet all of your pet’s needs and your own needs at this difficult time.
The Work of Grief and Mourning
It can be helpful if we are anticipating the death of our pet in the near future to know in advance the ‘tasks’ of grieving which we will need to work through. While each person grieves in their own way, there are universal patterns to the grieving process. We need to do the ‘work’ of grief.
J. William Worden in his book “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy” describes four tasks which we can apply to the loss of a pet:
- Accepting the reality of the death.
- Experiencing the painful feelings.
- Adjusting to life without our pet - internally, externally and spiritually.
- Moving on with our lives while keeping a continuous bond with our deceased pet.
It is a time to ready yourself and all of your family for the impending loss of a family member. Children and teenagers need to be included in the process. Talk openly with them about what to expect and how they can help. This will give them time to connect more with their pet, take more photos and videos, bring them to their favourite places, play with their favourite toys.
There may be tears as they anticipate imminent loss, anger at times, sorrow as they see their friend deteriorate physically, but there can also be a lot of love and connection. This is a healthy and natural way to be with the ageing and dying process and a big ‘learning moment’ for children, for whom it may be their first experience of a death. The social aspect of all family members and friends being involved and talking about it is very beneficial, although each person will grieve in their own way.
It can be helpful to start creating a ‘memory box’ or a scrapbook. Children may like to paint pictures or write stories or poems. It is also useful to talk about the death and what happens next – what will you do with your pet’s body? Burial may be a possibility or cremation can be arranged through your vet. It will be so much easier at the time of the death if this has already been decided.
Part 2 – During and After
a) Euthanasia at Home
A decision to euthanize is often made as your pet’s health declines. In some cases people are choosing ‘hospice care’ for pets and are committing to full time palliative care leading to a natural death, with the support of a vet who is willing to make house visits as needed.
Euthanasia in your own home environment, if possible, will be less stressful for your pet.
Prepare children for this in advance and give them the option to be present, depending on their ages and how well you feel they may cope with it. Don’t use phrases like ‘being put to sleep’ as it can be confusing and frightening for them. Explain that their pet is dying and that the injection the vet will give will allow their pet to die very peacefully – and that they will not be coming back. It can be very helpful in the grieving process if older children feel able to be there and witness the death, rather than imagining how it was.
b) Euthanasia at the Vet Clinic
If it is a planned euthanasia at a vet clinic arrange for it to be at a quiet time of the day when there are no big queues of patients waiting to be seen and the vet can take their time with you.
- Let the vet know the type of cremation and urn you have chosen and pay for this and the euthanasia procedure in advance so you can focus on your pet and your feelings at the end.
- Your vet may give a sedative injection first to help your pet relax. The euthanasia injection is usually given into a vein on the pet’s front leg. It is an anaesthetic drug that is given at a high concentration and acts very quickly as it enters the bloodstream. Your pet will go unconscious very rapidly. Their breathing will then cease and their heart will stop. The vet will confirm this by checking with their stethoscope.
- No matter how prepared we think we are, it is still difficult to accept that they are gone, which is the first big task of mourning, but being with your pet at the end can really help. You were with your pet and they were secure in your presence right up to the last breath.
- If possible, leave by another more private exit rather than face the waiting room again, especially if you are bringing your pet’s body home with you.
- Use incontinence sheets placed over a blanket or on your pet’s bed and lay your pet out on these.
- Ideally let other pets see and smell the body and let children and all family members view the body, letting the tears and the stories flow as they say their goodbyes. Never insist on anybody looking at or touching the body if they are resistant, let children know that we each grieve in our own way. Talking about all of the details of the last few hours or minutes can help to embed the reality of what has just happened.
- Other pets in the household will need to grieve the death of their companion also, and may be off their food and have low energy for a while.
- You may decide to keep the pet overnight and arrange to bring their body to the vet the next day for cremation, or arrange for burial if that is possible. This is the next phase of letting go and you may want to hold on to something – their collar, a clipping of hair, imprints of their paws in plaster of paris etc.
- Or you may decide to leave your pet with the vet after the euthanasia, in which case the vet nurse will often take charge of getting their collar, hair clippings, plaster moulds etc. for you to take home with you.
When you finally arrive home without your pet and face the loss of their companionship the tears may come. You are doing the work of grief when you let these tears flow and feel the pain, giving it a sound. This is the second task of mourning. Try to ‘lean in’ to the feelings and let them be expressed and experienced rather than resisting them. Children will feel free to experience their feelings if you are open about yours. You may feel guilt, wondering if there was more you could have done, was it the right time to let go. You may feel a surge of anger at a vet, or a family member, who didn’t do things as you wanted or didn’t seem to understand how hard this was for you.
You may swing between numbed shock and then deep pain as the reality of the loss hits home. But you also feel the need for ‘getting on with life’ - the meals, the daily routines, work, housework etc. still need your attention and these routines help to ‘hold’ you as you move through the early days. It is important to engage with both the tough feelings and the need to cope and carry on; it is a dual process. This is the work of the third task of mourning and will take some time.
The most natural need at this time is to reach out to others and be comforted and families and friends will usually do that for each other. But people who live alone, and especially the elderly, for whom the pet may have been their way of connecting to others, may feel very isolated in their grief. Grief needs to be spoken about and heard. Elderly relatives or neighbours will benefit from visits and opportunities to talk about their pet and how they are feeling and may need some extra support and care.
Preparing Rituals and Memorials
Prior to the death you may have made a plan about how to celebrate your pet’s life with a ritual or funeral. You may decide to bury their ashes in a favourite spot of the garden and plant a bush there, or create a memorial to your pet on a pet loss website on the internet. You can also upload photos of your pet on Social Media and write a dedication to them, which can be shared with all of your extended family and friends. Involving children in any ritual or memorial can be very healing for them as the social and symbolic nature of it can validate and support their loss and give it meaning. It also marks an ending of the focus on your pet as still ‘being here’ and needing your attention.
Life without your pet must now be faced. This is the work of the fourth task where our much loved pet now slowly becomes part of the story of our past and we start to open up to a new part of our lives, without them. In time this may lead to you having room for another pet, never as a replacement, but as a new and different relationship with an animal needing a loving home.
Everybody works through the tasks of grief in their own unique way and in their own time. There can be life circumstances or personal issues that make grief more complicated and very prolonged, in which case grief counselling or grief therapy from a professional therapist can be very beneficial.