Losing a pet can be profoundly upsetting, and yet the average lifespan of a pet means that we may experience many such losses in our lifetime. How are we supposed to cope?
The feelings you have may surprise you, and it could take longer than you might expect to come to terms with life without your cat, but the good news is that pet bereavement and the affect it has is being taken seriously.
Veterinary professionals have accepted that some understanding of grief is essential in order to support their clients, and there are counsellors specifically trained to help those who are grieving over a pet.
Sometimes the loss of a pet can be a trigger for thinking back to other experiences in life and bring feelings long forgotten about back to the surface, perhaps even connected to human loss. That it is a ‘fact of life’ does sound like a cliché, but it’s one of the ways that Robin Grey, professional counsellor and author of ‘Coping with Pet Loss’ suggests we view the loss. He says it’s about allowing time to grieve and to recognize that each of the different reactions are perfectly normal.
The reactions of those around you can be less than helpful and you may have to block out comments like ‘it was only a cat’ or ‘ why not just get another?’ Accept that your feelings are perfectly real and valid and allow yourself to come to terms with what has happened.
Robin says that loss is viewed as a process that has several phases, although not everyone experiences the same — or in the same order; life is never that neat! The upset does eventually give way though, and the experience can provide an understanding of what the relationship was all about.
The stages of grief include shock, denial, bargaining, searching, anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and finally acceptance.
Denial can follow quickly on from shock, and is an instinctive way of blocking out reality. Bargaining may seem like a strange expression in this context, but it’s about wishing… wishing the pet would get better, wishing you had done something differently, with an attached condition. For example, it can be an attempt to strike up deal: ‘If there’s some way of curing him I would promise to spend more time with him.’
Bargaining will help to keep some hope alive. The possibility of a ‘another chance’ is a way of holding back the eventual loss. Robin says: “If you are supporting someone who is in the bargaining phase, it is important to recognize that hope is part of their eventual acceptance. To be confronted with too much truth about the inevitable too early on can be unnecessary and may interfere with the loss process.”
Here’s how one pet owner summed up her feelings: “I was trying to reconcile my wish to keep him with my wish to let him go in peace. My vet helped me to see that the illness he had was affecting his quality of life so much that letting him go was the best thing to do.
"I spent so much time hoping for a positive outcome; that he would get better or that the cancer would somehow disappear. But I had so much weighing up to do in my mind between keeping him and letting him go. In the end letting him go was best for both of us, but it was hard to see it at the time.”
Time to say goodbye
“When people have to make a decision on euthanasia it is a very tough decision to make,” says Robin. “Vets will say, in many cases, that it is to alleviate pain and suffering. Yet although they can give advice, it is up to the owner to make the final decision. Some people keep their pets going for ‘a bit longer’ then have doubts about whether they should have done.”
The chapter ‘Deciding when it is right to end a pet’s life’ is thought-provoking. There’s no set formula to be passed on, but owners may find it useful to help them rather their thoughts and give them confidence to make what is a very personal decision based on unique circumstances.
Robin says: “It’s a difficult decision because it goes right to the core of the bond between you and the pet. Sometimes people prefer to make the decision on their own while others like to have the input and support from family.”
The message is be honest with yourself, take advice from your vet and approach this situation in the way that you feel most comfortable.
Robin sums up by saying: “It’s about love and life. The main point is that it is inevitable if you own a pet that this is going to happen. It is really important to recognize that it happens but not to let it colour the whole experience of having a pet. Accept it as a process; it’s part of life.
“People sometimes feel that their loss is too acute and hold the belief that they will not be able to face having another pet for fear of further loss at some time in the future. However, in time many pet owners find that they can welcome another pet into their lives. This is not to suggest that their former pet is forgotten but more that they can eventually reach a state of acceptance around the loss, which allows new life to come in.”
Whatever your age or experience, you don’t have to suffer alone. Robin says: “It is important to get help if you feel it is getting too much for you.”
That can simply mean finding someone sympathetic to talk to — and often it is easier with someone outside of your family or circle of friends since they won’t offer up a judgement on how you are feeling. The Pet Bereavement Service has a telephone service in which you can talk or correspond with a trained counsellor. For details, see Useful contacts.
A special bond
As a background, Robin offers an insight into the bond between human and animal. “We put a lot of love across to them, together with time and effort, and it’s completely unconditional,” Robin explains. “I think that’s why it affects people so strongly.”
Robin was partly motivated to write his book by the experience of an elderly aunt who was devastated when her beloved cat died. “The feelings of grief may be intensified for a person who lives on their own and for whom the pet is the sole and constant companion,” he says. “It is easy to see how she could have felt so completely bereft.”
Older people and children can have particularly strong attachments to their pets and the loss of an animal that has been viewed as a close companion can acutely affect both age groups. For parents, Robin’s book explores the importance of taking care when explaining pet loss to children, while being open and supportive.
The older generation have other perspectives on their pet’s death, the memories that it triggers and may force them to face the future. It may even mean coming to terms with the fact that this may be their last pet. The financial costs associated with their pet’s last days may also add to the toll on the individual.