Grieving for a Pet
By Dawn Murray CABC
The attachment that we have with our pets is referred to as the bond, and it is when our bond is broken through death, loss or enforced separation that we experience the powerful emotions of grieving. Often family members and friends may not understand how important your pet was to you. It is important to find someone who does understand.
There are certain circumstances which can intensify the grief. If a person has recently suffered other losses, feels responsible for their pets death, or has never fully grieved an earlier death of a human, the grieving process often becomes more complex. If the pet has shared a significant event in the owner's life the bond between the owner and their pet can be exceptionally strong and grief felt can be compounded by this attachment.
Grieving is as unique to a person as their own DNA, no two people grieve the same. Some pet carers are able to find closure and come to terms with the death of a pet very quickly and those people do not generally seek help or guidance to get them through pet bereavement. However, the other end of the spectrum is that some pet carers become totally overwhelmed with grief and cannot even think of a reason to continue living themselves. It is also important to recognise when someone is able to come to terms with the reality of their loss and those who are merely ignoring their feelings. Grieving is a natural process, and a valuable process to work through in order to heal the emotional scars.
At some stage everyone will experience bereavement. When a human dies everyone can relate to the grief experienced, offer sympathy and be able to empathise with you. However when a pet dies, it is not everyone who understands, nor wishes to understand. There is no outpouring of sympathy. Many who are grieving do not even turn to family or friends for comfort for fear of ridicule and many become isolated in their grief.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is an individual experience and many factors can be attributed to how we cope with our grief eg our state of mind at the time, or relating our pain to previous deaths or losses.
Grieving is not just a pattern of emotions felt when a pet dies, but is also experienced when a pet is lost, or if someone is forced to be separated from a pet, in cases like an elderly person going into a care home or families breaking up.
Grieving doesn't only begin at the time of death of a pet, but usually begins on hearing that a pet is terminally ill, has a chronic illness, or is showing the signs of 'old age'.
Grief does not affect us in any set pattern, it is a whole roller coaster of emotions, that has many twists and turns, and at times, many stages come back to torment our thoughts. Many aspects and stages of grief do form a pattern and are commonly experienced. These stages can be placed into four areas. Emotional, Physical, Cognitive and Social. Some of these stages may not be immediately recognisable as being directly related to grief.
Emotional aspects are generally the easiest and most recognisable stages of grief and they include:
The physical aspects can include:
- Physical sickness
- Lack of Concentration
Cognitive aspects (which means the functioning of the brain that allows us to think, reason and understand):
- self blame
- blame directed to others for the death
- doubt as to the timing of the death - especially if the decision was taken to Euthanise a pet
- a need to understand and learn all the details of the reason for the death, or in some cases how death actually happened
- Self isolation -Wanting to hide away from friends, family and take time off work
- incessant talking about the deceased pet and the pets demise
- the need and urgency to want to replace a pet
Allowing ourselves to grieve properly is the paramount to self healing and the key to our future emotional wellbeing. In the case of Euthanasia, it is a very fine line between 'doing the right thing' ie being responsible, as opposed to overwhelming feelings of guilt and self torture. The positive and proactive cognitive aspect of Euthansia is that it is the ultimate act of love that we can show to our pets. It shows the love and bond that we have for a pet, allowed us to save our pets from suffering. It is the ultimate act of selflessness, an act of kindness borne out of our love. Yet the negative thoughts that we tend to feel in grief, are the complete opposite. We often self punish with thoughts of being selfish, uncaring, and a killer. Many pet carers who made the decision to euthanize their pet feel the need to emotionally torture themselves, even when they know that they made the decision out of love and in the best interests of the pet. The need to self punish by trying to convince themselves that they were somehow responsible for their pets death can be overwhelming. Thus totally distorting the truth and hindering the healing progress. Many pet carers withdraw, may be reluctant to ask for help, and feel rejected by others, while some may show an increased dependency on other people, or an increased need to keep busy and many begin to question their religious beliefs. Through research, it has been shown that when grief can be expressed, the time needed for healing is often less. Similarly, if the need to express grief is restricted or withheld, the healing process can take much longer.
Grieving linked to euthanasia is very unique, in as much as, just making the decision to euthanise a pet is probably the hardest decision a pet carer will ever have to make, and the responsibility can be overwhelming.
Many people can easily identify two emotions directly related to grieving, those being crying and depression. However, grieving can be a complex process which has many facets and often can be recognised in a number of stages. The length of each stage varies with each individual person. Some people may return to a particular stage, such as guilt or anger, time and time again. Anyone who is grieving need time to work through each stage, being non judgemental as to how someone copes or deals with grief is important, even when others find it difficult to comprehend their actions or thought process.
The emotional factors
When we hear that our pet is terminally ill, or has been involved in a accident, we got into a state of shock. Shock leaves you feeling stunned for a while, absorbed in your thoughts and unable to focus on anything else. The most common symptoms of shock include: anxiety, short tempered, a fast, weak pulse, feeling faint, weak or nauseous, dizziness, cold, clammy skin, or sweating, rapid, shallow breathing, thirst. We can loose the ability to concentrate, become confused and have no sense of time. Whilst these symptoms are not necessarily life threatening, it is important to monitor someone experiencing shock very carefully, and seek medical help if you feel they require it. Shock usually lasts until the information can be digested and get some perspective on what they have been told. The length of time shock lasts will vary from person to person, and even those who 'knew in their heart' that their pet was nearing the end of its life, will still experience symptoms of shock when it is confirmed.
When the initial symptoms of shock pass, and the reality of the prognosis is beginning to sink in, many pet carers may display signs of denial. Like shock, this is a built in defensive mechanism whereby we are trying to protect ourselves from emotional trauma and it is a natural reaction. Pet carers are unwilling to face problems on either a conscious or subconscious level. They may act as if there are no problems to face and to avoid facing the reality. By repressing the truth, many are able to mask their true emotions and carry on as normal and therefore nothing in their lives has to change.
To family and friends of the pet carer this can be seen as an irrational way to act, and can be frustrating to witness. It may appear to others as though the pet carer is not bothered by the news they have received, when in fact the opposite is true. Denial allows pet carers time to work through all the information that is flooding their minds, and gives a distraction from the intense pain. Denial should not be confused with not caring, and should be recognised as part of the process, which will pass.
Guilt is probably the most powerful feeling a pet carer will experience when grieving, it can completely consume our every thought, to the exclusion of all else including the death of the pet. No matter what the reason for our grief is, ie through bereavement, enforced separation or loss, a pet carer will always find a reason to feel guilty. No matter how well prepared we think we are or how capable we think we are of coping with bereavement, feelings of guilt can get out of control to such an extent that a pet carer will find a reason to feel guilty about everything even if it's not directly related to the bereavement. We need to find a reason for our grief and why our pet died, it is in this 'searching' for answers that pet carers self blame and torture themselves with guilt. Although feelings of guilt are natural, they can also be exceptionally destructive and we can allow these feelings to take over our lives. Guilt has to be managed very carefully, and a way should be found to stop feelings of guilt becoming out of control. Focus should be placed on what a pet carer did right for their pet, the love and happiness a pet gave throughout its life, rather than focus on the negative aspects.
The list of reasons why pet carers feel guilty are not exhaustive but many of the more common reasons are:
- They feel they didn't do enough to save their pet
- They should have chosen a better Vet
- They should have fed the dog better quality food
- They forgot to close the gate
- They should never have gone to work that day
- They should never have let the dog off the lead
- They should have kept the cat indoors that day
- They feel they have abandoned their pet
Over and above the usual feelings of guilt associated with grieving, making the decision to euthanasia a pet compounds these feelings. Having to make the decision to end a life is totally alien to us, and the feelings of guilt associated with euthanasia are unique and overwhelming. Feelings of guilt may last for years in some pet carers.
- They feel like they betrayed their pet by making the decision
- They feel like they made the decision to euthanise too soon or too late
If a pet carer has not made arrangements in advance for the aftercare of the pets body, they can feel guilty, often for years, that they should have done things differently.
Bargaining - asking for a second chance
This stage is not a common with pet bereavement as it is with human bereavement, but it does happen and should be recognised as part of the process. It is also more commonly associated with pre death grief, when on hearing the news that a pet is terminally ill that we bargain with a higher entity eg God, even if a pet carer isn't particularly religious. "If you let my pet live, then I promise I will take better care of him". This is often the response a child would give, who is desperately seeking to understand why their pet will die. Many people will 'bargain' once a pet has died and desperately seek a second chance to care for them or do things differently. "if you let them come back I promise I will, walk them more, take them to the vet and look after them better".
Anger and guilt often go hand in hand as these emotions surface when a pet carer has had time to think about the death of their pet. They need to hold someone responsible for what has happened. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard pet carers blaming their vet for not doing enough to save their pets life or not handling the death in manner the pet carer would have expected of a vet. They direct their anger at anyone who doesn't understand the pain eg another family member, friend, neighbour, or work colleague. Anger can also be directed at complete strangers who had no link to the death of the pet, and this can manifest itself at any time eg road rage, super market trolley rage - anything! Even the most placid, well mannered people can turn into a monster when they are in this stage of grieving. Like denial, anger is a distraction to our pain. We want to blame someone for the death of our pet. Going through a stage of anger while grieving is normal, however, it should be managed carefully and a pet carer needs to recognise and find a safe release for anger as a means to control it. Surprisingly, anger can also be directed at the deceased pet. Some pet carers may blame the pet for their death, eg: if a pet is killed in a road accident, the pet carer may say it was the dog or cat's own fault for being stupid and being on the road.
It is unusual for someone grieving to display anger in the same breath as shock and denial, but it does happen and can resurface many times over, when they least expect it.
Depression is the stage we most often think about in relation to grieving. For many people, losing a pet may be one of the saddest experiences they will ever have and depression can develop at any time and to varying degrees. It can also affect our physical wellbeing, we may find it difficult to eat, sleep, concentrate or carry out fundamental daily tasks. We may not want to be around other people, but in reality, this is when we need understanding people the most. Talking to someone who understands our grief is a way to help the healing process begin. Some people live their normal daily lives in some form of depression, or close to it, and the loss of a pet can accelerate them into a very deep depression, which may require referral to a Doctor for professional help.
Pet carers who get stuck in their grief, may be putting it down to the loss of their pet, when in fact there are other deep rooted causes/reasons for their grief. Often linked to the death of a human. But remember, as no two people are the same, this stage of 'depression' may strike an elderly person much harder, if they feel they have nothing left to live for.
Closure is the final stage of the grieving process. Closure is a word I do not like to use, simply because I do not believe that we truly ever get closure - we just learn to cope with our loss. For many pet carers, closure implies that they have accepted the death of their pet and will forget their pet, hence the reason many do not wish to get closure and will continue to dwell on the situation indefinitely. The word closure means to start to come to terms with our loss, not to dwell on our loss and to adapt to living without our pet. At this point, we are able to accept that our beloved pet has died. We begin to focus on the times enjoyed together. At this point, we may consider looking for a new pet, not to replace our lost friend, but to have someone to enjoy our life with. There still may be times after 'closure' when we experience deep sadness, anger, or guilt at our loss, but we can recover from these times faster, and look forward rather than backwards. Saving a pet from suffering is the ultimate act of love, one which sadly is not afforded to humans.
Take one day at a time
Be kind to yourself, take time to concentrate on your own needs, by eating properly, getting sufficient rest time or sleep and exercise when possible even if it's just to take a short walk. Look at ways that you would like to remember your pet by way of a memorial, this could be anything from a designated quite place to sit in the garden, to making a memory book with photographs and stories about your pet. Talk to people who have lived through pet bereavement. Try and maintain some normality in your life, by engaging in activities that you enjoy. Be patient with yourself and permit yourself to feel sad and acknowledge your loss, but also remember that it is ok to feel happy especially when remembering the good times you had with your pet. There is no greater tribute to the memory of our pet, than to remember them with all the love and happiness they gave us throughout their lives.