Grief happens because love is enduring. We often think of grief as a negative experience, and it is painful. But it’s also worth saying that grief comes from a positive place of deep love and affection, which is wonderful. This is the final in our four-part series on end-of-life care for dogs and cats. It’s a hard conversation every guardian needs to have with their family and veterinarian, but it’s a necessary one. Planning, making a choice regarding care and euthanasia, as well as how we will make our pet comfortable are all important, but knowing what comes after a loss and dealing with grief are often overlooked.
For those who want to know more about nutrition to extend the life of our pets and the early planning stages, read our article about “End of Life Care and the Tough Choices, Part One.” Anyone who wants to know more about investing in pet health, such as pet insurance, as well as what to expect while caregiving for our senior pets read, “End of Life Care and The Twilight Years, Part Two.” And for those who want to know more about evaluating quality of life, hospice care, and euthanasia, read, “End of Life Care: Caregiving and Tough Choices, Part Three.” Now, in part four we’re covering what comes after we’ve said goodbye and how to best recognize and cope with grief.
Immediately After We’ve Said Goodbye
Usually, the vet will have already asked questions about what we want to do with our pet’s body, but if they haven’t, we should bring these questions up earlier rather than later. It’s better to consider what the family may want early on. It can be harder to make this choice or have the discussion during the emotionally charged time of our pet’s passing.
Burial at home. This may work for those living in rural areas, but it is illegal in most places. Checking on local regulations is essential. Be sure to select an area that will be easy to prepare. Frozen ground, hard clay, and rocky terrain may be too difficult to manage. And always choose a location that is not near waterways, wells, and wetlands.
Cremation. Cremation has become increasingly popular, although it has been a long-time option in many cities. Pet crematories will want us to decide whether we want private cremation or whether we are okay with communal cremation. Private cremation means we can get the ashes of our pet to keep with us. Communal cremation is less expensive, and it involves several pets being cremated together. Their ashes are then distributed in a designated area on the private property of the cemetery.
Pet cemetery. Depending on the location, there may be a pet cemetery nearby. Some human cemeteries will allow pets to be buried near their humans, such as in a crypt with the rest of the family. This needs to be confirmed by guardians with their specific cemetery. If this isn’t possible, sometimes a cemetery will allow a memorial plaque to be added to the existing human memorials, as a way to keep our fur-babies connected to us. There are also pet cemeteries that will pick up our pets and hold funerals and memorial services for them.
Donation. In some states, pet guardians are allowed to donate their fur-baby to science. This isn’t for everyone. A discussion about this should take place if more than one guardian is saying goodbye. There are teaching hospitals, veterinary programs, labs, and universities who will sometimes benefit from the study of a dog or cat who had a particular disease or condition. Similarly, many students at vet school who would benefit greatly from the experience they receive in school, before their on-the-job learning.
Care by the veterinarian. In some places, the veterinarian will include caring for Fido or Mr. Socks in their fee along with the end-of-life services they render. Sometimes, when this is available, it can make it easier for loved ones to grieve because the tasks of arranging for the final steps after our canine- or cat-companion have passed are already taken care of by the vet. This option isn’t always available, so we need to check with our veterinarians in advance. Even if they don’t offer this service, they will know exactly who to recommend.
The Grieving Process
It’s not like having one good cry means we’ve officially grieved and we’re ready to move on. Grieving is a process. People in the midst of grieving often hate hearing that because it means there’s more to endure. There are some actions we can take to make sure we take care of ourselves or those around us who may also be coping.
Losing a pet can leave significant voids in our lives. We miss out on basic routines that have become reflex. Our fur-babies occupied multiple roles for our psychological and emotional health, just as we filled that need for them. Protege, caregiver, life witness, friend, and perhaps the most painful for many people, we’ve lost a companion who offered unconditional love. Scientific American explains Why We Need To Take Pet Loss Seriously and it’s brilliant because it clearly outlines the effect of grief from the loss of a pet in scientific terms. Yes, it’s been studied. Physically, it’s similar to a heart attack. Psychologically, it can be damaging because there are so many uninformed people who say, “it’s just an animal,” or “you can just get another one.” Emotionally, it is similar to the loss of a family member or close friend. And why not? After all, pets are family. We know this, but many just aren’t dog or cat people at their core; people who never really connected and built a life together with their pet in a meaningful way.
It also isn’t unusual for grief to be complicated by additional feelings such as guilt about whether we did enough or did things the right way. Circumstances surrounding the death may add to the emotional blow. There may be the unexpected reawakening of an old loss. And expectations play a role. Sometimes people may expect the grieving process to be shorter or less consuming. When the actual experience differs from expectation, we may find ourselves frustrated, and the emotions we are already coping with are compounded. One of the most significant complications is the resistance to mourning. Whether because we feel weak by acknowledging feelings or just want to deny ourselves the emotional experience, resistance often complicates and draws out the natural grieving process.
Beyond the complications and severity, there are things we do to help the grieving process along.
- Acknowledge that there is a natural process at work.
- Give permission to experience grief and to work on recovery.
- We need to be sure to meet our basic needs many put off when they are grieving.
- Actively build new routines. It doesn’t all have to happen at once. It can be a gradual shift.
- Release the guilt that may accompany building new routines. Letting go of old routines we had with our companions can feel like a betrayal, but it isn’t.
- We should be patient and kind to ourselves.
- Find an ally who understands and can provide support, even if that is only a listening ear.
- Engage in the rituals of letting go, such as funerals. Get people together to remember our fur-babies, and to laugh and cry together.
- Write down thoughts, emotions, memories, and stories.
- We can memorialize our pet in many ways. Choose one the makes sense and seems like the best fit for the individual relationship. It could be a plague, a photo in a frame, maybe an engraved garden stone to place in Roxy’s favorite spot in the yard. Perhaps choose to dedicate a tree, create a photo album, or make a donation in our fur-baby’s name. Creating a legacy and remembering our pets can be a critical step.
Helping the Other Fur-Babies Grieve
Many families and guardians are so caught up in the demands and caregiving of our ailing pet, that we miss out on comforting and caring for other pets who may also be experiencing the loss and grieving. They need our help and attention to help them through it, and we could probably use their companionship as well. Just keep in mind that pets grieve differently from us and from each other. The important thing is to pay attention and watch for queues about what they need, rather than using our interpretations alone.
- First and foremost, maintain existing routines with our living animals as much as we can.
- Watch for and recognize signs that they are experiencing loss. This can look like a number many changes in behavior. They may be more demanding and need attention, seem less affectionate, look for their missing companion, sleep more, eat less or more slowly, vocalize more or notably less.
- Give them what they need, whether it’s more or less affection, or just time, find routines together that are healthy for both ourselves and our companions.
- Don’t rush them to recover. Give them time to grieve.
- If they seem to have persistent ongoing symptoms or develop more severe problems like diarrhea, vomiting, anxiety, or persistent loss of appetite, consider a trip to the vet. The stress of loss can lead to physical illness that can be treated. Or we may accidentally attribute grieving to a disease that needs our attention.
Loss is very personal, and while there is plenty we can do for ourselves and others, it is a process that cannot be rushed. Ultimately, we can all think about what our cat- or canine-companion would do for us if they were with us while we were grieving. They would give love, share their company, and provide support - as much as we needed for as long as we needed. We can all think of this when making decisions about how to care for ourselves.