Grieving and Pet Death
I found myself in my neighborhood veterinarian office last week for the second time in several years signing a form to allow a beloved dog to be euthanized.
And while I have no doubt I spared Dino the specter of a lingering, painful death, it still hurt to let him go. Losing a pet—even when euthanasia is the humane thing to do for it—is haunting.
Pets can’t tell you how you feel. It’s all on you to try to divine the right thing to do by them.
Pet Death is Significant
A pet death is a significant emotional event. Pets are like family; many are close companions as well.
I’ve learned about the significance of pet loss through a client devoted to counseling and supporting people following a pet’s death and for “pet parents” caring for a sick or elderly pet.
I can’t imagine anyone minimizing the effect of a pet death. Even people who aren’t pet owners or particularly drawn to animals understand the attachment people have to their pets. It’s a sensitivity that’s shockingly lacking elsewhere in our society.
Is it easier to deal with pet loss after the first time? No.
Several years ago I euthanized my beloved dog Woody (pictured above) after sudden organ failure. He was at least 18 years old, a “Methusala” as one friend noted.
Dino was a few years younger and on good days, quite active. Maybe this is why I found it even harder to let him go. “You get a good day and hang on to it,” my veterinarian told me. But it was clear to me that Dino’s good days were over.
Dealing with a Pet in Decline
Day by Day Pet Support (the client I mentioned above) has been around for several years.
When I started working for them about a year ago, I was aware that Dino was growing old. The fur on his face had become entirely white. His short legs (he was a Chihuahua mixed with Dachshund or possible Corgi) weren’t as fast as they used to be. But he continued to energetically greet everyone and anyone he met, although larger dogs merited stern growls.
I read through the site and was particularly drawn to its plainspoken FAQ page which covers everything from pet suffering and quality of life to euthanasia procedures and grieving, including the question “why doesn’t anyone understand my grief?” This isn’t about lack of sympathy (it’s there) but the fact that grieving is a very personal process.
I was interested to read that pets react to their own decline in similar ways to people. Some will openly try to fight it, while others will hide.
Dino suffered from seizures caused by brain tumors. Medication worked for several months but he eventually suffered breakthrough seizures. He often sought refuge under my bed or against a wall. When he seized in the middle of a room, he searched out walls afterward, blindly stumbling around even as I tried to hold and comfort him.
After a few weeks of this, it was clear when the seizures became painful. Once, he bit his tongue hard enough to bleed. It took longer to recover from them. And in retrospect, I think his kidneys were beginning to fail.
My dog Woody aged stoically. While Dino enjoyed rolling over to wiggle on his back and occasionally chasing his tail, Woody kept his dignity intact. Although Woody slept a lot, he was usually up for greeting visitors and taking short walks.
In the end, Woody died after a tumor burst in his abdomen. It all happened very quickly. He started slowing down over a Thanksgiving weekend and became quite ill Sunday night. I knew I’d need to take him to the vet in the morning if he even survived the night. Much to my surprise, he made it up the stairs to lay down outside my son’s bedroom.
Day by Day advises people caring for sick or elderly pets not to burden themselves with thoughts about how and when the pet dies. Live in the moment with them. Set aside time for mourning. If you find you aren’t recovering, get support from a resource like Day by Day or a counselor.
Will You Get Over the Death of a Pet? Probably.
I guess it really amounts to how you grieve.
I don’t get weepy over Woody anymore although I realize I still talk about him. I have little photos of him around my house. Both were taken by friends, one when he came up to investigate a camera and the other after a romp at a dog park. In that photo, he has a huge and uncharacteristic smile on his face.
There are tons of photos of Dino, who was born and lived in the cellphone camera age.
For me, grieving my pets is quite different than grieving people I loved who are no longer alive. I continue to grieve my mother, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, and my friend Michael who died from a glioblastoma at age 50.
Both went through genuinely tragic circumstances that left all of us bewildered. Some time after my mother’s death, I discovered a notepad she used to write down things she didn’t want to forget. She also used it as an occasional diary and noted that the doctors think she might have Alzheimer’s.
Michael was certainly aware of his circumstances even if he didn’t fully understand the cause. I know because he told me.
I cry when I think about them for too long. It’s much better to briefly reminisce about how funny they were, and they really were funny and smart. (They liked each other, too.)
I was with my mom and both my pets to the end and told both that although I’m not much of a believer, I do hope we’ll see each other again one day.