In the United States today, roughly two out of three households are shared by companion animals. As more and more families are including pets, it is rapidly becoming evident that modern American culture has created a special role for non-human animals within the family structure.
Unfortunately, when people are faced with the death of a non-human part of their family, the same support, understanding, and resources that are readily available when a human family member passes on may not even appear to exist. This can lead to a very confusing and traumatic time for members of these families who are oftentimes trying to silently and privately cope with the profound sense of loss they feel – which, for the record, can be unexpectedly overwhelming.
Because of this perceived silence on the issue and lack of readily available resources, some unfortunate family members are left feeling as though they are somehow crazy or outcasts. This ultimately leads to feelings of isolation that many in my profession regularly encounter while assisting families in the mourning of their pets. The aim of this article is to educate and provide resources for families so that they are knowledgeable and are aware of reliable places that they can turn to for professional, caring, and helpful end of life and memorial resources when they are preparing for or have experienced the loss of a pet.
Always remember, the loss of a pet is a significant loss, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Many times, because there is a fear of judgment of what others would think, people tend to minimize their grief. All too often, we hear phrases such as, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or “It was just a dog (or cat).” These phrases are harmful to the griever because they suppress very real feelings, forcing these same emotions out in other ways. If you feel it, let it be felt, and have faith in your hardwired ability to grieve. The greatest thing grievers can do is to respect and recognize these difficult emotions as they come and allow themselves room to explore and ultimately express these feelings in a healthy way.
Normally, families are aware that they will be faced with some rather difficult decisions as their pet ages and their physical health begins to deteriorate. The final stages of a pet’s life are generally the most difficult time physically for the pet, which leads to it being the most emotionally exhausting and difficult time for their human counterparts.
When a terminal diagnosis is given, or if it is becoming evident that a pet does not have much time left, family members may begin to feel a great deal of sadness, anger, or a myriad of other emotions. These feelings, known as anticipatory grief, are a form of grief that occurs prior to the loss. If these feelings become debilitating, the best course of action is to seek out a professional therapist, or to find a local or online support group. The emotions that accompany anticipatory grief are often confusing and isolating. Talking through them in a professional setting may not alleviate these feelings entirely, but they may ease some of the secondary discomforts that often spring from these emotions.
With this in mind, it is essential that families take the appropriate actions in the anticipatory stages to minimize the potential for feelings such as self loathing, uncertainty, and guilt after the death occurs. Many times family members will say, “What if we had done this,” or “We should have tried that.” A good way to defend against this is to have an end of life plan in place before it is needed. If possible, start by thinking about what you would do if you were given a terminal diagnosis and start gathering facts in order to be aware of all of your options. End of life care is continually changing and, if desired, euthanasia can be your family’s last resort rather than the only option. This may ultimately reduce the level of stress and guilt that is felt after the pet passes away.
Pet hospice and palliative care are quickly emerging as an end of life specialty and, much like in human hospice and palliative care, an emphasis is placed on managing pain and preserving dignity during the life to death transition. Dr. Amir Shanan of Chicago is the Founder of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC.org) and owner of Compassionate Veterinary Care in Lincoln Park. Dr. Shanan is leading the way for increased awareness of end of life care that is multi-faceted, and sensitive to the important differences in culture, faith, and emotional well-being of those who are trying to navigate the often complicated and evolving options for end of life care. IAAHPC members are progressive thinkers that are committed to both the animals they serve as well as their surviving humans.
Pain management is a very important component of hospice and palliative care. But it is important to keep in mind that while physical pain management is a crucial part of palliative care, human pain and grief management are viewed as equally important components. After all, end of life is an experience that creates the foundation for healthy and effective mourning in the days, months, and years that follow the loss of family members.
Many times in the end of life stages, the animal’s quality of life gets to the point where euthanasia may be the most humane and appropriate course of action. If, after consulting your veterinarian and family, you decide that euthanasia is the right choice, decide where you would like the procedure to take place.
Traditionally, euthanasia has been offered mostly in a clinical setting; however, some veterinarians have begun offering in-home euthanasia services due to a huge increase in demand. This option, although sometimes a bit more expensive, can be a peaceful and fitting way to say goodbye without having to worry about removing an already struggling pet from the comforts of home.
If you opt for an in home service offered by a veterinarian who is not your pet’s regular veterinarian, be sure to notify your regular veterinarian that your pet is no longer living. For one, the veterinarian and their staff often times form an attachment to your pet as they get to know them throughout the years, and secondly, this will help your veterinarian’s office avoid unintentionally hurting or offending you by sending health and well-being reminders.
Decisions following End of Life
Many times the veterinarian who oversees the final moments of a pet’s life will offer cremation options as a courtesy. In most cases, the veterinarian is doing this for two reasons: convenience and demand. Generally speaking, veterinary offices will facilitate the most basic service options available on the market. Options include communal cremation with no return of remains, communal cremation with return of remains (also called partitioned, separated, individually partitioned, or semi-private) and private cremation with return of remains (one pet at a time, alone in the cremation unit.)
It is vitally important during this phase of the process that you ask any questions you may have. Make sure that the cremation provider your veterinarian is working with has an open door policy, meaning they can be surprise-inspected anytime during business hours, which should be available to both clients and veterinarians. Always get the contact information for the cremation provider, and never accept a cremation service that does not allow clients to contact them directly.
One vital question to ask if opting for a communal (partitioned, separated) cremation with return of remains is: what type of partition and equipment are used? The term partitioned or separated commonly elicits the image of a complete separation, but most always in practice only a single brick layer or space is used as the partition or means of separation.
Most importantly, remember that you are under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to have your veterinarian’s cremation service handle your pet’s remains. It is imperative to understand that veterinary hospitals receive wholesale pricing and often make a profit on the services of the after death care and disposal facilities they work with.
For dignity’s sake, remember to be diligent and weary of anything that doesn’t sound right. Examples of this are being told you cannot do something entirely reasonable, told you cannot witness your pet’s cremation, or if you are asked to pay an exorbitant price for any services offered to you. Never be shy or feel silly asking questions as it is highly likely someone has asked the same question before.
If you would rather bury your pet in a human or pet cemetery, or, if legal, in your back yard, you need to know that it is your right to do that. Most every after death care provider offers transportation services, in the event of you not being comfortable or able to transport your pet afterwards.
If you are not comfortable with something or do not feel as though the options presented to you are adequate, ask for time in making the decision to do more research. Most veterinarians have a morgue on site and wouldn’t mind keeping your pet while you take a little time to make your final decision. If at any point you feel pressured, bullied, or threatened by anyone, including your veterinarian or their staff, into accepting a service offering, the best course of action is to take your pet with you and find a service option that you are comfortable accepting. Your satisfaction and peace of mind should be kept in mind at all times by anybody offering after death care services to you.
Although the following service options are rarely selected and may be considered somewhat taboo, sometimes people elect to freeze dry, mummify, or taxidermy their pets. Although many people do not express interest in these service options, the few people I have encountered who have elected for these types of services are usually pleased with the final outcome. There are advantages and disadvantages to these service offerings, and further guidance when deciding on these service offerings is recommended. Much like cremation, if you choose to go this route, always research the service provider and make sure they are reliable, have a good reputation, and are mindful of your emotional well being.
After the loss of a pet it is important to surround yourself with people who are supportive and understanding of the nature of your loss, as well as the deep impact it has on your life. If for any reason you are having trouble finding support, or feel you need additional assistance in your grief journey, don’t be afraid to ask for help. In your community, it is very likely that there are others going through what you are going through and there is probably a support group that you could join.
If there isn’t a physical support group, there are several hotlines and online support groups available to you. If you aren’t interested in pursuing those options, seeing a professional therapist is very helpful to many people. The downside is that it can be cost prohibitive. The most important thing to remember if things feel hopeless is that there are resources available and, with time, it will get better. If ever you feel as if you want to harm yourself or others, seek immediate medical attention.
As our culture changes, thinking of pets as members of the family continues to become more and more socially acceptable. Professional product and service offerings are at their highest quality ever for families that have chosen to share their lives with pets. The prevailing attitude on pet loss is changing for the better as education and resources continue to evolve and become more readily available. This is due in large part to the abundance of information on the internet, coupled with the proliferation of professional associations committed to educating and providing resources to pet families like yours and mine.