When a beloved family pet passes away it can be an incredibly hard time. For many people, the effect can be comparable to that of losing a human loved one, a situation which pet owners are often led to believe is foolish by those who haven’t experienced that kind of bond with an animal companion. However, those that do have these tight bonds with their pet, a creature who has been a treasured part of your family’s lives for many years, can be left with a real feeling of emptiness inside. From the sickening feeling you get every time you wake up and realise there is one less little mouth to feed to the absence of a cute and fluffy greeting every time you get back through the door, many pet parents really struggle during this tough time.
In what turned out to be a heart wrenching series of interviews, Chemist Direct spoke to over 30 pet owners who had recently lost a particularly special animal. They were asked a little bit about their pets life and death, as well as what they personally went through as they came to terms with the loss. These interviews contained great information and advice for dealing with the loss of an animal as well as plenty of beautifully moving stories of love and companionship.
We took the best bits from these interviews and compiled them into five pieces of advice for pet owners about how to best deal with the emotional challenges a sudden loss can bring.
The difference between letting go and giving up
When Melanie Young’s 14 year old Chance developed a cancerous tumour in his nasal passage, she knew from personal experience that it wouldn’t be fair to keep him alive for invasive treatment. Here she tells us a little bit about his life, and how she came to terms with the loss.
Chance was my best companion as I experienced a mid-life transition in my 40s. He was my comfort in 2001 when I watched the World Trade Center towers fall from my NYC apartment and in 2006 when he followed me down the aisle at my wedding in New Orleans. He was even there for me in 2009-2010 as I endured a double mastectomy and five months of chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Everyone in my life knew and loved Chance. He was a rescue puppy named for the second chance he was given for a better life and because I believe life is about taking chances. And I took Chance everywhere with me, from Paris to every point in the USA during my travels. Chance loved to fly on aeroplanes, loved being carried in a bag and especially loved riding shotgun in my red convertible with his ears and hair aloft.
When I found out that he had cancer I crumbled. How could I subject my six pound puff of sweet white fluff to head surgery and chemotherapy after I had just endured my own horrible cancer experience? I decided against it. Maybe it would have prolonged his life; maybe not. It was one chance I decided not to take.
I’m not the type of person who finds it easy to let go, an emotional hoarder you might say, but in this case I knew it had to be done. I quickly found that letting go should not be viewed as “letting someone down” or “giving up.” I came to accept “letting go” as a release – freeing someone or something up to move onward. When you let yourself or someone you care about go it will only make you and that person fly higher, not fall downward, like tossing seeds in the air to sprout elsewhere- or find peace. Letting go does not mean giving up, but rather accepting things that cannot be.”
Melanie saw how easy it would be to fall into a cycle of emotional turmoil and chose to view Chance’s passing as a transition rather than a loss, an important step, and one that will help you end your grieving and start to be able to remember the companion you lost with joy rather than sadness. Although she is obviously still greatly saddened by her loss, she remains optimistic, stating that “when I let go of the 14 year chapter of my life with Chance, I was able to reach out and embrace a new chance and a new chapter.”
Surround yourself with people you love
It might seem obvious to say that if you are grieving it is best to be surrounded by people who love and care for you, but many people in-fact do the opposite and hide themselves away from the world. When Beth Lacey had to let go of her 13 year old it wasn’t just her family and friends who were there to help her move on, it was also the kindness of the animal hospital staff and five wonderful foster puppies.
I could never have been able to recover from the loss of my dear boy (not that I’ll ever be the totally the same, really) if it weren’t for my amazing family, friends, the local animal hospital and the wonderful people at the pet cemetery. My family surrounded me with love. My friends made donations in our names and held my hands throughout Gonzo’s memorial ceremony (where we planted a tree with some of his ashes at a nearby park).
The local animal Hospital was also incredibly kind, even going so far as to send me a condolence card from all the staff, and to hug me and walk me back to my car when I picked up his ashes. The pet cemetery also sent a special card with the last stamp of his paw print which I will always treasure. It is these small acts of kindness from those around me which kept me afloat during this dark time.”
Surrounding yourself with life and kindness is often a great way to deal with bereavement. Although no amount of hustle and bustle will cheer you up immediately, it will certainly remind you that you are capable of doing and thinking other things.
Although this method of distraction might not work for everyone, it certainly seemed to help Beth, who went on to foster multiple dogs which brought tail wagging joy back into her life again. If you think fostering an animal might be a good tribute to your departed companion, get in contact with the ASPCA.
After my 5th foster left my care to start a new life, the folks I foster for asked me if I would consider adopting a golden retriever puppy, one whose birth date was the exact same as Gonzo’s. Next week she will turn 1.. Gonzo would have been 15. As we did on the anniversary of his passing, we’ll send a Chinese floating lantern up into the sky to let him know he is just as loved now as he was then.”
Know when it is the right time
An additional burden, and one that we don’t even have to go through for our human bereavements, is knowing when it is the right time to let go and have your companion put to sleep. Many a pet owner has been left distraught after choosing to have a put down, only to be haunted by doubt and worry that they made this decision to soon.
Brittany Marvel, a veterinarian from Texas, offers us advice on how to know when it is time to let go, or how to reassure yourself that you did the right thing once your difficult decision has been made:
The best advice I have ever received, in terms of knowing when it is the right time to put a pet down, is simple: Think of three things your pet loves to do. When they no longer want, or are no longer able, to do two of those three things, then it is time to seriously consider their quality of life. It might even be time to let them go.”
Don’t live to regret your actions
Many pet owners have lived with regret after losing their pet. Be it feeding them to much fatty food or wishing you had spent more time with them with them while they were still around, regret is difficult. Jennifer Shanks had an example of regret more poignant than most when her beloved dog Amber passed away and she just couldn’t bear to stay with him while he passed.
When I was nine, my parents brought home a perfect golden retriever puppy. We named her Amber, and she grew into the most loving, most intuitive, most loyal friend I knew as a child. She was special, something inside her knew when she was most needed. If I was feeling down, Amber was there to give me a soft nuzzle.
When Amber grew old, she grew heavy. It was our fault for showing our love through treats, and I regret the damage we did to her health. Although she had always slept on a bed with one of us, as she grew older and heavier, the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms became too difficult and she spent the last few years of her life sleeping at the foot of the bottom step.
One morning my mother and I woke up and headed downstairs towards Amber. We noticed she wasn’t lifting her head to greet us or wagging her tail. We stepped around her, and saw her eyes open, looking directly into ours. She was awake. She was alert. But she couldn’t move.
Once in the vet’s office, we sat with the vet while she examined Amber. She told us that there was nothing we could do. Amber had suffered a stroke, and was paralysed. All the while, Amber’s eyes were darting back and forth between me and my mum. She knew.”
It was at this point that Jennifer made her biggest mistake, and thus, learned her biggest lesson:
My mother and I struggled to stay calm while the vet prepared Amber to be put to sleep. Breaking down, we said we couldn’t watch and left the room. And then we left the office. The admitting nurse tried to flag us down to pay, but the technician waved her off. We drove away, sobbing.
I’ll forever regret that. Not staying in that room to comfort Amber, as she had spent a lifetime doing for us, haunts me to this day. I’ve never forgiven myself for not letting her know we loved her, but that this was good bye. I know she was scared, and we left. I would give anything to take that day back, to stay and hold her and talk softly to her, and try to make her fears – even if for a moment – go away.”
Its easy to see how Jennifer, in that emotional moment, ended up making a decision she would regret, but unfortunately there is no turning back the clock once the moment has passed. To finish our guide, Jennifer reflects on a positive lesson she learned from her otherwise traumatic experience:
Thinking of Amber is hard. She was wonderful. And she taught me – the hard way – that we are responsible for our pets in the best, and worst, of times.”
A loss of a beloved pet is something we all must face. What advice would you give a pet lover?