Pet Bereavement: Giving Good Grief in Veterinary Medicine

Patty Khuly

It’s never easy, but in the context of a typical end-of-life setting where an owner has lovingly and considerately made the emotionally fraught decision to end or preempt their pet’s suffering… death can be a beautiful thing.

I know that sounds all wrong, but as I’ll unreservedly assure those of you who haven’t experienced the discomfiting reality of animal suffering, death is a deserving victor when the alternative is pain or anxiety.

Still, it’s not easy to make the decision. Nor is it easy to administer the syringe’s contents while looking your patient in the eye. But this is no “dirty job,” as some vet-watchers have characterized it. Rather, I believe this is a necessary, noble act we too often undertake too late –– or worse… not at all.

Luckily, most of my clients tend to be proactive about euthanasia, whenever possible. They’ve been there before and, consequently, they know what they want (and don’t) when it comes to death.

Notwithstanding some religious beliefs, most will agree with me that it’s better to euthanize a pet a week or two early (or even a month!) than even a minute too late. After all, you can’t take that minute back and you’ll remember it (none too fondly) for the rest of your life.

Nonetheless, a great many pet owners understandably prevaricate on the issue of death. The grief that surrounds the event –– after, during, and even way before the inevitable occurs (for example, in the case of a terminal illness) –– can be overwhelming. To illustrate the point, I thought I’d offer you a poignant email from a pet owner who agreed to let me use her question (and my answer) in this post.

Here’s the question:

“Though he was euthanized last week, I can't shake this terrible fear that my beloved cat is still alive and suffering. To me, he was my child and I can’t help feeling there's something I should still be doing for him. I even went back to the vet later that same day to see and hold him again and to make sure that he really was gone, and had them check again for a heartbeat with a stethoscope. I know this sounds insane, but do you have any words to help me accept that he's really gone for sure and not suffering somewhere?”

And my answer:

"Perhaps I can help reassure you by explaining that many of us have the same feelings after our own beloved pets are gone. We agonize over those last moments and suffer the irrational (but understandable) fear that our pets are still suffering within their bodies even when we can see for ourselves that they’re obviously gone.

But it’s true; I used to think clients like you were a little crazy until I experienced the same thing after one of my own pets passed. I couldn't let go of the vision of his remains inside the freezer (where we hold them before they’re cremated).

Terrible as they are, these are all normal human experiences after traumatic events. For me, it helped to discuss my "crazy" ideas with others and to find that they felt similarly or had experienced the same burdensome thoughts.

But that’s easier said than done, given that our culture isn’t always understanding of those of us who suffer the loss of our companion animals. With that in mind, I’ve put together a short list of organizations, accessible either online or via telephone, to help put you together with people –– locally or otherwise –– who understand what you’re going through.

Colorado State Vet School’s Argus Institute

The ASPCA grief counseling hotline: 1-877-GRIEF-10. For more info, see www.aspca.org

Cornell University has a pet loss support hotline available from 6-9 PM EST at 607-253-3932.

The University of Florida has one too.

Finally, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) offers a website at http://aplb.org/index.php

There are plenty of other resources I could recommend, including pet owner-curated memorial sites, but these are my personal favorites.

Knowing you’re not alone is often the key to surviving traumatic events like the loss of a pet. Bereavement in the company of others is, in my opinion, the most humane way to handle these blows life hands us."

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