The experience of having a pet die can be difficult. When the death is anticipated, it is typically accompanied by grief during the lead up to the death. When the death it is sudden, the shock can feel overwhelming. Both anticipated and sudden deaths involve grief, which is most intense initially, and can last for several weeks or months after the loss. My vet shared that he prefers to help his clients “put down” their pets when an animal has reached its end of life. This way, the owner can play an active role in the dying process. He said that the worst kind of death for owners, from his experience, is a sudden death.
My vet also shared that owners seem to cope best when they can play an active role in minimizing their pet’s suffering, both at the end of life, and during the lead up to the death as the animal declines. He said that an animal does not have to suffer as its health declines, which I found to be both comforting and true as I personally went through the experience.
I have counselled many people that have lost a pet. Some are surprised by how painful the loss is, especially when they have not had the previous experience of losing a pet.
But doesn’t it make sense that you would be strongly attached to your animal, and would feel significant loss, when that animal has been with you for a number of years?
I propose the following scenario: In eight years, you will have fed your animal almost 6000 times, and possibly slept with it for 3000 nights. If it’s a large dog, you will likely have walked it 6000 times. If it’s a cat, and you picked it up twice a day, you will have held it 6000 times. With either type of animal, you will likely have been greeted at the door 3000 times.
My point? We create fierce bonds with our pets. They like us. They accept us unconditionally. They make us happy. They listen to us. They comfort us. They entertain us. They make us laugh. They become a member of our family. And often they give us purpose.
When a client tells me that an animal in their home is dying, talking about what is happening becomes an important part of our sessions. We discuss the emotional impact that the experience is having on them. I witness each person mourn the loss of a constant companion and friend.
I encourage many of my clients to get an animal, because receiving unconditional love from a pet can make our lives richer. They assist us if we are depressed, or anxious, or have experienced trauma. They can give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning when we’re struggling. Sometimes they give us a reason to live when life has gotten hard.
Research has shown that elderly people in care facilities live longer if they are given a plant to take care of, so imagine how important an animal can be. I had one client tell me, after three years of working together, that the best thing I ever did for her was to encourage her to get her dog.
After an animal dies, I encourage my clients to create a ceremony to mark the death, just like we do when we lose a person. One woman went on a final walk, following the route that she and her dog had taken each day while he was healthy. Another woman created a cairn out of stones in the woods so she would have a place to visit as she mourned her loss. Another planted a rose bush in her garden.
I encourage all my clients to recognize that the loss of an animal is a significant event. When my elderly cat died at the age of 16, I calculated that I had had him for half of my adult life. That’s quite a long time, and the role he had in my life as I changed jobs, and cities, and relationships, deserves to be recognized as significant.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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