Losing With Dignity: Thoughts from a Pet Loss Grief Coach

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Claire Gillenson, MA
photo credit: kidsinthehouse.com

Claire Gillenson, MA, is a grief coach who specializes in pet loss, working with clients to process through the deep emotions that come along with saying goodbye. Many of us have been there - sometimes the loss is sudden, as though the carpet’s been pulled right out from under our feet. Sometimes the loss stares at us from a distance, marching ever closer as sickness or age progress. Sometimes our pets pass peacefully on their own, but most times, we have to be the ones to make the decision. No matter what the specifics, two things are true: it’s inevitable that one day, we all have to let our sweet pets go, and when we do, it hurts - possibly more than anything has before or since. Claire aims to ease that pain.

Getting Help Before You Need It

Typically, clients come to Claire anywhere from a week to a few months following the death of their pet. However, she wishes people would come to her before the loss, as preparing for it ahead of time could help pet parents cope during those final days or weeks, potentially when they need it most. “Imagine if your pet was sick and you’re having to make that decision (to euthanize) and I was able to give you some do-it-yourself exercises ahead of time,” she says.

A specific tool Claire uses with her clients is the popular living will for humans called Five Wishes. She encourages pet parents to complete a document for their pets that would serve the same purpose. Taking time now - when you have a clear mind and sickness or age isn’t even a concern - to record what your pets are like in their best days, what level of health and dignity are important to preserve, and what signals would alert you that it might be time to let yours pets go, can help in making these tough end-of-life decisions. For example, she says, “you can just write down ‘I take this pledge to be able to recognize… when my dog has more bad days than good.’ I think that’s the hardest part, but if you wrote down some of this stuff in the very beginning and you can go back to it near the end… it’s almost like you took a picture with your pet and then you can go back to that picture and keep your promise.”

Understanding Your Relationship With Your Pet

Why does the loss of a pet feel so huge to us? Claire says it’s not only because of the unconditional love aspect of our relationship, but also because the relationships we have with our pets are based on so much intuition: “Since we can’t speak each other’s language (literally), we learn how to attune ourselves to each other’s signals - vocalizations, body movement, energy. We learn how to sense when something’s not right (or when it is). This intense attention to one another creates a very deep, unique bond that is unlike even the bonds between human mother and child.”

The other thing that can happen with our pet relationships is that we can use them to replace human relationships altogether - either consciously or subconsciously, which puts additional weight and value on them. Take one of Claire’s clients whose children are all grown adults and out of the house. She now has four Yorkies, who she admits are her “new” children, and she dotes on them accordingly. She buys them the best of everything. By recognizing that her dogs represent now her children to a certain extent, she can better prepare herself to understand why the loss might be so big later. Claire offers, “just look at what the relationship represents. What qualities, what goodness, what gifts does he bring to you? Each pet brings different gifts, fills our cup in their own way.” Even if our pets are young and we aren’t expecting to lose them anytime soon, reflecting now on what they mean to us beyond their unconditional love can help us down the road.

Using Tools To Make The Big Decision

“I just had a client who called me and said her vet said it was ‘time,’ but she couldn’t accept that because her pet had just had a good day after having many bad days. [In situations like that], I often ask my clients, ‘what would your pet say if he could speak?’ I also use 1 - 10 scales to indicate level of activity or normalcy and ask questions like, ‘when was the last time he was able to run or fetch?’ This woman said that her pet’s appetite hadn’t been great, but then he finally ate something she cooked for him. So I asked her, ‘but that’s not his usual meal, right?’ The woman agreed. So then I said, ‘when he eats, you feel better, right? And he’s bonded with and tuned into you, so do you think there’s a possibility he might be eating for you?’ And there was just silence on the other end, but I knew she was trying to process and accept it,” Claire explains.

According to Claire, questions like those are part of the checklist of indicators that might help us decide it’s time. She always validates how much love and dedication care like that takes, and at the same time, she tries to help her clients consider what level of dignity they would see if they were able to go into their pet’s brain. She tries to get clients to identify if their confusion and hesitation is really about the pet’s well-being or if it’s more about them not being ready. It’s okay not to be ready, she assures - the important thing is just to check in with yourself.

Pet parents second-guess and despair over their choice, often heaping undeserved pressure and judgment on themselves. To ease some of this suffering, Claire has an exercise called fact or fiction: “I tell my clients to write down their beliefs and thoughts and anything that’s swirling around in their minds, weighing heavy on them, and then I ask them if that’s a fact or not. Something like ‘I should’ve known it was bloat, or I’m afraid I didn’t do everything I could.’ If you write it out, you will find 99% of the time, what you’re in turmoil over is not a fact and you can try to release it.”

Successfully Coping And Processing Your Grief

Not all of Claire’s clients find success working with her. “Sometimes, they get mad because I can’t give them a quick fix, or because my fees are too high, even if I slide them down,” she admits, but for the most part, pet parents find great peace and resolve when working with Claire. She says the clients who are most successful are the ones who realize that it’s up to them to help themselves and Claire’s just the conduit: “I recently had a (non-pet) client whose husband had died of cancer come back to see me. She had been care-giving for a couple of years when she saw me for about 3 months, after which we came to completion. It was very healthy - she had gotten what she needed, and was done. Then recently, she and her new boyfriend came back to see me for a couple of sessions to talk about how they both could support and be there for one another as they move forward… and then she wrote me a huge thank you note.”

Aside from having reasonable expectations, here are 7 more tips from Claire for being successful in working through the grief of losing your pet:

  • Figure out ahead of time how you deal with loss
  • Don’t make it about you
  • Give yourself permission to grieve in whatever way you need
  • Be honest with how you feel
  • Surround yourself with people who understand and support this particular grief
  • Don’t take it personally if others don’t understand (not everyone in your life is a pet person)
  • Honor the memory of your pet however you want: Claire had a client who made a CD of photos of her pet and then gave copies out to her friends

Have you ever lost a pet? What did you do to cope with the grief or honor your beloved companion? Please share your memories in the comment box below!