Part 1: Proactive Strategies to Help You Prepare for the Difficult Decisions
The joy of this year’s Mother’s Day was tempered a bit by the loss of our sweet Rosie a year ago. Our auburn-haired girl was only seven years old when liver cancer took her life. She was our sons’ first real pet – they picked her out of the litter and were responsible for her daily care. She was my husband’s coffee companion and always eager ball catcher. She was my best buddy, faithful garden companion, and much needed female vote in a house full of guys.
As I worked in the yard with my husband and sons this past weekend, I felt Rosie’s constant presence. I felt her creeping from behind ready to steal the empty flower pots as I added a splash of color to our Minnesota landscape. I sensed her wading in the pond in search of a frog or a goldfish to tease her with their quick moves. I turned more than once to see if she had dropped her ball into the swimming pool as her way to get my attention to play. While Rosie may have left this earth a year ago, and our new baby Sydney eagerly fills our hearts with joy, this weekend our sweet girl had returned. I once again felt Rosie tugging at my heart as I treasured so many pleasant days together with my best pet friend and remembered so many sad days and weeks after we said goodbye.
Some people think it’s crazy to feel such emotion over the loss of a pet. However, fellow pet lovers know from experience that pet grief is real. For many of us, it is as real and painful as the loss of any family member.
In memory of our wonderful Rosie Girl and all of your sweet pet friends that will be forever missed, I thought it would be helpful to provide a series of posts regarding pet loss and how to help overcome our very real and personal grief. I also hope that as a member of our pet lover community, you will share your questions, thoughts, and great resources to help each of us better understand and work through the difficult emotions that take over our lives when we lose a beloved pet.
For this week’s post, I took a step back and tried to find ways to help us proactively prepare for the loss of a sick or aging pet. My family’s veterinarian, Dr. Milton Crenshaw of Animal Medical Clinic in St. Paul, was a very helpful resource. I’ve included a summary of our conversation below and excerpts can be viewed in this week’s Sharing with Sydney video.
Summary of My Interview
Tracie: Dr. Crenshaw, is it normal to feel such tremendous grief when we lose our pets?
Dr. Crenshaw (Dr. C.): Absolutely, pet grief is real. Once we bring a pet into our home, we shift from being a pet owner to having a pet as a member of our family. In no time, we develop a strong emotional attachment to them because a pet’s unconditional love is very rewarding and they’re so eager to please us even when we’re in a bad mood or caught up in our own personal angst. For some people, our pets become our primary source of companionship and joy. And when the economy is challenging, as it is now, we turn to our pets even more for love and comfort. With such deep bonds, of course we feel a great loss when our family pet dies. We shouldn’t be embarrassed, but rather recognize our grief as very real and very personal.
Tracie: Throughout your career of practicing veterinary medicine you have seen many people face the difficult decision to put their beloved pets to sleep. What wisdom can you share to help us better prepare for this decision?
Dr. C.: People express emotions in different ways and for many of us, when our emotions kick in, our logic or reasoning turns off. That’s why it’s important to think through our pet’s end-of-life decisions while they are still healthy. For instance, do we prefer burial or individual versus group cremation? Do we want the pet’s ashes returned to us to in a memorial urn? Or do we wish to spread the ashes over our companion’s favorite place? These are all personal choices that give us a process for getting through our grief, much like our place of worship or religious services help us through the loss of our human family members.
Tracie: When do we know it’s time to say goodbye to our pets?
Dr. C.: Human euthanasia is not accepted in our society, and our medical advancements make it easy to believe that there is always a new way to keep our loved ones alive longer. So when it’s time to euthanize our beloved pets, we feel guilty. We feel we must do everything, even at great expense, to prolong our pet’s life. What we lose sight of is that our pets often know when they are so sick or weak that it’s time to say goodbye. Dying is a natural part of every life and pets are very in tune with this life cycle. Yet, we want to hold on as long as possible because it makes us feel better, not the pet. We should always consider the quality of life for our pets first and make our end-of-life decisions humanely and without great delay.
Tracie: How do veterinarians and their teams help people through this difficult decision and their grief?
Dr. C.: While most vets and techs are receiving more training in ways to help their families euthanize their pets when the time is right, unfortunately, they don’t usually get involved with the after-the-fact emotions and grief that come days and weeks later and can become overwhelming. I believe we could do more to reinforce that pet grief is real and that each person needs to recognize their personal symptoms of grief. We should also be proactive in providing direction for individuals to find meaningful ways to overcome pet loss, including seeking counseling, attending a pet loss group, or finding another pet lover to share their experience and talk about their grief.
Recognize that grieving is part of the healing process. Here are a few supportive resources where you can seek help for pet loss and pet grief:
• Talk to your veterinarian about local resources.
• Search your local yellow pages for pet loss support groups.
• Call your animal humane center for expert resources.
• Talk to a trusted counselor or psychiatrist.
• Meet with a group of fellow pet lovers.
Coming Next Week
Next week, we’ll talk to a pet lover psychologist to understand the symptoms of pet grief and explore meaningful ways to help overcome the loss of a beloved pet. Until then, remember there are thousands of pet lovers experiencing pet grief everyday. You are not alone and there are many resources ready to help.
Tracie & Sydney
P.S. If you find this post helpful, please forward it to a pet lover friend. Also, check my two previous posts to learn how you can help us define our pet lover community, either through words or pictures, and enter to win a $125 gift card.
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