Pet Loss: “One of the Family!”
By Dr. Bill Webster
"What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us."
Marian was devastated by the loss of her husband Bob two years ago. She wondered if she would even survive the loss, but she persevered, worked through her grief and was at the point where she was beginning to rediscover herself, reconcile her loss and reconstruct her life.
Then another family member got sick. In spite of heroic treatment with constant care and attention, the death occurred.
No, it was not a child, parent, sibling or even a relative. Marian lost her cat!
For those who have never had a companion animal, pet loss is often hard to understand. “After all,” many say, “it was just a cat, or a dog, or a bunny rabbit, or hamster, or one of many possibilities.” Pet loss is often overlooked by society. When an animal dies, owners sometimes may grieve alone because they are afraid that they will be ridiculed, because, after all, it is “only a pet”.
But for Marian, Pebbles was “one of the family”. This loss has been just as devastating to her as the death of her husband, probably complicated by the fact that she was “their” cat, and Pebbles death cuts one more string that connected her to Bob. Perhaps the loss of an animal is made more difficult because there is a lack of understanding of how significant this relationship can be, leading to only a little sympathy from those around.
Within a week of Pebbles death, a neighbor showed up at the door with a new kitten for Marian, which she politely refused to accept, still too hurt from her loss to be able to invest in another relationship. She managed a smile as she told me about it. “Too bad they didn’t bring over some younger guy to replace Bob when he died”, she retorted, and the chuckle we shared helped put it in perspective.
In recent years, the Pet Industry has truly expanded. And so, not surprisingly, grief counselors for pet loss are emerging. The loss of any relationship can cause intense pain, and even if others may not understand, a pet is often a significant and constant part of ones' life. Pebbles provided Marian a source of comfort and companionship, unconditional love and acceptance, and even fun and joy after Bob’s death. Little wonder she was devastated by the loss of that relationship.
While there are many common factors in grief over any relationship, there are issues that are unique to the situation that often trouble the grieving pet lover.
A major issue is guilt, especially in those frequent situations where the pet owner had to decide to euthanize the animal or a veterinarian treatment was unsuccessful. In Marian’s case, she spent an extraordinary amount on treatments hoping to give her cat a few extra years of life, and her some more time with her pet.
But after 8 months, she realized that the veterinarian may be the best judge of physical condition. But Marian was the best judge of her beloved pet’s quality of daily life. Seeing the constant pain, as well as having to undergo difficult and stressful treatments that didn’t seem to be helping, as well as Pebbles general lack of interest in life, Marian chose to end her beloved companion’s suffering.
Marian courageously insisted on being with Pebbles to the end, needing to see the cat passing peacefully and without pain. She spent some time with her beforehand, and continued to stroke and comfort her while the procedure was administered, and remained for some time after her cat died. Many veterinary offices have developed a very sensitive and caring process for the procedure which is sometimes done in an office, in the person’s home, or even on occasion in a person’s car.
Marian made all the decisions about what she wanted for Pebbles, and handled the situation like the trooper she is, but then she came home to an empty house, and it hit her like a ton of bricks. She felt a myriad of emotions:
She felt sadness that this constant companion who had provided a connection to her beloved Bob was gone. She expressed anger that the treatments the veterinarian had promised would give Pebbles a year or two of life had not worked and had caused 6 months of suffering. She tormented herself with guilt over the fact that even though she knows it was “the right thing to do”, that SHE had made the decision. Had she been too hasty? Could she have done more? And above all, the loneliness of missing the comfort and companionship she had clung so desperately to after Bob died.
So many people get so much love and delight from their beloved pets in life, and like any significant relationship, they grieve deeply for them when they are gone. But it is more than that...people often make pets living symbols of their inner feelings: for some, symbols of their own innocence and purest feelings and the need to care; for others. Whether positive or negative, when your pet dies a treasured secret part of the person also dies.