A pet parent story from Melissa Brock. May it help you cope with any losses you face.
My almost-12-year-old golden retriever, Calla, died on January 5.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a great start to my family’s new year. Instead of looking forward to what 2021 will bring, we found ourselves looking backward over her long life and trying to figure out how we’d ever feel motivated to do simple things, like go on a walk again — after all, with no doggie wiggling at the door with her leash in her mouth, who cares about exercise?
We sort of had to reconfigure our family, too. My daughter wondered what to do about her drawings, which all display an extra family member with a wagging golden tail. Overnight, we went from a family of six to a family of five — mom, dad, two kids and a cranky black cat.
The grumpy black cat, unfortunately, is a poor replacement for a literal ball of golden, happy sunshine.
As my dad said, “Pets’ lives are never long enough.”
So true. I attempted to put together a few guidelines for how to cope with the loss of a pet if you, too, have found yourself going through this sad experience.
How to Prepare for the Death of a Beloved Pet
Now, nothing can completely prepare you for this punch to the heart. However, I thought my experience might help you as we contemplated our pet’s end-of-life pet care.
Step 1: Know that there’s something called anticipatory grief.
This kind of grief can catch you off guard. In response to the news that our beloved dog could either have the “bad” kind of cancer — a common carcinoma that golden retrievers get — or the “good kind,” which the veterinarian could take out (and she’d live), we did experience a version of anticipatory grief. This means you experience sadness, anger and/or guilt in response to an expected loss.
Ours was a bit mixed, because it could have been good news — but half of our hearts prepared for the worst as well.
It’s important to know that if you don’t experience anticipatory grief, it doesn't mean you love your pet any less and it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience grief after your pet’s death.
Step 2: Plan ahead to give your pet a “good death.”
Weird, huh? But of course you want your senior, severely injured or terminally ill pet to have as pain-free death as possible. Advance planning makes it easier for you to make better decisions and ensures a “good death” for your pet.
Consider a few options and which is best for your pet:
- An unassisted death at home
- Euthanasia in the vet’s office
- Euthanasia at home (if possible)
...then follow the next step.
Step 3: Really listen and talk to your pet’s veterinarian.
Talk to your veterinarian about what’s next. Maybe you decide to let your dog stay home. Maybe you decide euthanasia is the answer. In that case, ask everything — ask what happens before, during and after euthanasia, what your dog will do. Ask: When does the vet usually perform euthanasia? Is it in a special room? Can you spend time with your pet before and after the process? No question is dumb here, particularly when you may have never experienced it before.
It may sound administrative for this emotional process, but ask your vet how much it costs to euthanize your pet. You don’t need any more surprises, and pet euthanasia may cost anywhere between $35 and $300 (1). If you have pet insurance, check to see if they cover end-of-life expenses so you can just focus on helping your pet go comfortably.
Things Nobody Tells You About Dying Pets
You never want to contemplate your pet dying, but sometimes the unknown is worse.
You Never Know How it’s Going to Go
As soon as I knew our dog had a tumor and if it was a bad one, I assumed my husband and I would stand at her side as the vet euthanized her. However, it didn’t work that way at all. We decided to find out whether she had a “good” or “bad” tumor and she underwent surgery. When the vet called us to tell us it was a “bad tumor,” we elected to let her go during surgery. Of course, we weren’t with her at all, and in many ways, that was harder still.
Your pet’s death may not go as “planned” — an unfortunate reality.
It’s Really Important to Say Good-Bye
I never realized the importance of saying good-bye to Calla until we didn’t get a chance to do it.
Due to a scheduling snafu with the veterinarian’s office, we had to rush her in to surgery. My husband dropped by the vet’s office prior to her surgery to visit her — just in case the vet called to say she had the “bad” kind of cancer.
Here’s what we missed out on: The chance to cry into our pet’s fur and give her kisses the night before surgery. The chance to make her a gourmet steak dinner. The chance to make sure our kids realized she might not come back. (The worst part of it all was that our kids were completely blindsided by the fact that our dog died.)
You Could Grieve for a Long Time
For some reason, society doesn't always recognize how much losing a pet affects our emotional and physical health. Grief can last one to two months, and on average, grief can persist for a full year.
Emotional responses can include:
- Inability to accept the loss
- Intense tearfulness
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling that you cannot tolerate the pain
You Could Experience Other Emotions Besides Sadness
You can feel bitterness, regret and incredible guilt, especially when you choose to euthanize your pet. Second-guessing your decision to choose surgery, to euthanize your pet or go with another course of treatment is common — you may imagine that the “vet didn’t give us all the options” or “something might have changed the outcome.”
The “what-ifs” can get you. Remember that when you’re grieving, you may minimize or forget the reasons that led to your original decision.
Your Kids May Need Help Understanding
Naturally, our kids needed help weathering this storm. But our son, who is four, seemed to shrug off our dog’s death. However, he needed help processing it, too, and we treated him the same as our seven-year-old daughter, who cried for days. I took these tips to heart:
- Encourage children to express their feelings.
- Don’t try to “protect” your kids by trying to hide your sadness. (We cried openly in front of them.) Hiding your own grief can make children feel like the sadness they may be feeling is bad. However, try not to let children see you at your most upset moments, as they may begin to worry about you or feel insecure.
- Avoid phrases like “passed away,” “gone” or “we lost her.” You don’t want them to take these phrases literally and become anxious, scared and confused. You also don’t want them to think that the pet will come back — that death is not permanent.
See Your Pet’s Body Before Cremation or Burial
This is one of those things that we didn’t get to do, and experts recommend that you see your pet’s body before burial or cremation as a way to help you begin to process the loss. There’s no question that we know that Calla is gone but seeing her may have helped us cement the idea in the immediate days after her death.
Ways to Deal with the Grief of Losing a Pet
There’s no one way to handle the grief of losing a pet. Check out a few tips below to help you through the first few weeks — the toughest for us.
Tip 1: Hold onto your pet’s things.
Our veterinary office made us a sweet ornament of our golden retriever’s paw as a keepsake. They also returned her collar and her ashes once we had the courage to collect all her things. (I barely got through paying for the final bill and then sat in my car and cried, but it made me happy to have everything. It comforted me that I could “take her home.”)
Tip 2: Spend time with those who matter.
Got a friend or family waiting for you at home with open arms? Talk to them about your pet, including the things you regret, the things you’ll miss and what you loved most about your pet.
Tip 3: Lean into your other pets if you have them.
As I mentioned, we have a mean kitty at home, and believe it or not, he made us feel better throughout our grief process. He gets to sleep on the top of our bed now and we spoil him with cat treats and new toys. He bites us, but for some reason, he comforts us. (I know, I know.)
It’s Tough to Prepare for the Loss of a Pet
There’s no question: It’s so hard to prepare and grieve the loss of a pet. One of the hardest things about it is that I keep expecting Calla to pop up out of the corner after a nap or greet me, tongue lolling, at the door.
I miss her, but am thankful for over 12 years of friendship and love.
I wish you the best when it’s your time to cope with the loss of a pet. And if that time is now, you’re not alone. Find thanks for the years of friendship and love.