October 15th, 2013, marks the four year anniversary of the day I said goodbye to my beloved dog, Reese. She was twelve years old. Reese had been my first dog and my companion through college and veterinary school. She had also endured with me a time in my life when I battled a serious illness. I had family that loved me dearly through that time, but Reese was my constant, always willing to stay in bed with me for as long as I needed on those tough days. She was also the first dog that I owned for which I had to make the decision of euthanasia when I realized her quality of life was gone.
That decision coincided with the start of my job in Community Practice at Auburn University. That decision also changed the way that I talk to my clients and my students about pet loss. Most importantly, the experience helped me to understand the grieving process in a very personal way.
Losing a pet, for many of us, is no different than losing a family member. Our animals are an integral part of our home and our lives. Choosing to euthanize a pet, then, might be one of the most difficult decisions that we ever have to make. Research indicates that 70% of clients are affected emotionally by the death of their pet and that as many as 30% of clients experience severe grief in anticipation of or after the death of their pet. In addition, 50% of clients studied reported feeling guilty about their decision to euthanize their pet (Shaw, Lagoni, 2007).
Grief is complicated by the fact that, as a society, not much is known about grieving. This is further compounded by varying beliefs about what should happen when an animal dies and how we should respond to the loss.
Grief is defined as the natural and spontaneous response to loss. Grief is also the normal way to adjust to endings and changes and is a necessary process for healing emotional wounds. Furthermore, grief is a process, not an event (Lagoni, 1997). There are many factors that play into the process including the significance of the loss and the freedom given to that person to grieve. There are also many myths that complicate grieving and they can serve as barriers to the process, such as “be strong and push through—don’t let your emotions show”. The stages of grief include:
1. Shock and denial—initial reaction that helps you through the first wave of pain. You cannot believe this has actually happened and deny the reality of the situation.
2. Anger—can be pointed in a number of directions such as at yourself (I did not do enough), at your veterinarian (they did not do enough), or at the animal who is the subject of your grief. Directing your anger inwards may also result in feelings of guilt.
3. Bargaining—processing results in striking imaginary “what-if” deals, i.e. what if I had brought him in sooner or what if I had pursued this treatment.
4. Depression—very common and often prolonged part of the grieving process; sadness and regret predominate, and at times it may be difficult to express your feelings
5. Acceptance—this is the recovery phase, as you can begin to talk about your pet and the loss. You may also realize the benefit of talking about your feelings with others.
As you walk through the stages of grief, realize that allowing the process to move forward is the healthiest way to grieve. Early on, after losing your pet, it is not uncommon to think that you hear or see them in the house. You may want to continue the routine that was customary in caring for them, such as getting a treat out for them before you go to bed.
Other ways to reflect and remember them may include memorializing your pet by having a funeral service with those who knew and loved him or her. Making a photo album or writing a letter to your pet can also help process the emotions and the loss. If you have children in your family who are also grieving the loss of this family member, know that children often move through the stages of grief much more readily if given the opportunity to do so. Talk with your children using words that are clearly understood. “Being put to sleep” means that an animal will wake up and though it may be hard to say dead or dying, these words are much easier for a child to understand. Allowing them to be a part of the process and giving them opportunities to share their feelings will make the coping process easier over time.
I recently saw one of my clients and met her new kitten. She had lost her beloved cat just over a year ago. With reservations, and still much sadness, she welcomed this kitten into their home knowing for herself and her family, that the timing was finally right to move on. Getting another pet right away may be the next best thing for you to do. Having another animal in the home does fill a void, but it has to be right for you and this includes the right timing and the right animal.
My dog, Reese, taught me a lot four years ago when I had to say goodbye. She helped me realize what grief looks and feels like. She taught me how to be more empathetic to my clients when they endured losing a beloved pet. She helped me seek out resources and further education to be a better source of support to anyone dealing with the loss of their animal.
“Time does not heal all wounds, but time softens the intensity of grief.”
If you are dealing with grief and the loss of a pet, know that there are resources available to you. Talk with your veterinarian, or call Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine for more information.