Pets: Grief hurts: Resources for healing when a pet dies
Photo by American Bedu
This is our third and final article in the series about end of life decisions, which are, sadly, a part of adopting a pet. To euthanize or not to euthanize due to medical problems, quality of life and (unfortunately) the cost of extreme medical care are all issues which must be weighed by responsible pet owners.
In previous weeks, we wrote about Nini the cat and her family’s decision to have her undergo surgery which resulted in extending her life for about six months, allowing the Farsakian family the time they needed to say goodbye. We followed Nini’s story with the story of the Pelletier family who made the very difficult decision to humanely euthanize their cat Bert, as well as well as establish “The Bert Fund” as a way to come to terms with their loss.
In writing about these end-of-life decisions, it is our hope that there are lessons we can learn about the importance of pets in our lives, as well as ways we can nurture the animals we love, whether it be extensive medical intervention or a compassionate and caring end in the arms of someone who loved them.
"It is possible to take something beautiful and lasting out of the heart-wrenching experience of seeing the animal you love move inexorably toward death. Nobody can take the grief away, nor should anyone try, but our love for animals is nothing but a gift, and it keeps on giving, even when they go home," says author, Jon Katz in his recent book, "Going Home, Finding Peace When Pets Die."
Grief hurts, but it's also healthy and necessary as well as a testament to the power of love and attachment we feel. This is the theme in several books, many of which we have at the Animal Hospital for our clients who are in the process of mourning the loss of a pet. Books such as “Bill at Rainbow Bridge” by Dan Carrison, “Good Grief (Finding Peace after Pet Loss, Personal Insights on the Animal Lover’s Unique Grieving Process)” by Sid Korpi, and “How to ROAR: Pet Loss Grief Recovery, a Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Dealing with the Death of a Pet” by Robin Jean Brown offer a perspective that many find comforting in the aftermath of a pet's death.
Brown’s formula or ROAR is to:
- Repect your loss and grief
- Own your reality
- Affirm Yourself
- Reclaim your Life
Each of these books offers insight into the intimate bond of humans and animals. They also observe that one of the hardest things about the grieving process is when others don’t understand the degree of your grief over the loss of your pet. People who are not bonded to animals don’t understand grief for pet loss and see it as illegitimate, which complicates the grieving process even more.
In our article about Bert, Bill Pelletier touched on this complicated aspect of grief with a philosophical observation:
"On some levels, it’s not necessarily rational, but a profoundly emotional and physical reaction to the primarily emotional and physical bond that people have with their pets, rather than an intellectual one. If you live with an animal long enough, you begin to see many human elements in their behavior. You can’t discuss Beethoven or Schopenhauer with a cat, but I know that if Bert had talked, we would have discussed these things.”
In “Going Home,” the author observes that when we bring a pet into our lives, we plan for care, feeding, training and welcoming it as a member of our family. What we can’t plan for are the feelings of loss and grief at the pet;s passing. However, what we can take comfort in, according to Katz, is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each of us must mourn and then celebrate the lives of our pets in our own way.
Jon Katz offers this advice:
- Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it
- Write about your feelings
- Contact local pet-support groups
- Call a pet-loss hot line
- But most importantly, tell your story.
For those readers who may be struggling with their grief journey, we highly recommend “the kite network” as a local resource. The kite network has been referred by our veterinarians to clients at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital and was recently featured on AnnArbor.com.
There are as many ways to grieve as there are people in the world. The stories that Katz shares represent a cross-section of individuals and families. We get the benefit of their hindsight — what they did, how they felt — what they think may have been done differently, etc. In our end-of-life series, we have attempted to share a cross section of stories from our own community. In doing so, we have sought to honor these animals and the depth of feeling for pets who have been loved.
David Caddell is the hospital director at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital, a locally owned and operated Companion Animal Hospital. David can be reached at 734-662-4474 or dcaddell@AnnArborAnimalHospital.com.