Given the option, the death of our pets is a topic most of us prefer not to talk about. It can cause intense anxiety and may also evoke awkward feelings in relation to our own mortality. Yet an unavoidable aspect of becoming attached to our pets is the inevitable experience of grief in relation to their eventual loss.
Pet bereavement is potentially complicated because it is largely an unrecognised loss in most white Western societies, resulting in what psychologists term ‘disenfranchised grief’ i.e. thoughts, feelings and emotions that are not recognised, accepted or understood by others, particularly some non-pet owners. For example whilst compassionate leave for the death of a human family member would be automatic, most employers would not allow time off to grieve the death of a pet. This lack of recognition of how intense pet bereavement can be can result in grievers feeling they are sentimental, over-reacting and even cause self-reproach and guilt for feeling so bad.
We cannot change how others react to our experiences of loss; but understanding and accepting our own feelings of grief as being a normal response to the loss of a much loved pet, can go a long way to helping process the loss and prevent more complicated grieving. To be able to do this it is necessary to understand different types of losses, what grief is and how to recognise as well as to develop positive ways of coping.
Coping with the loss of a pet
There are two different types of losses we can experience:
- Necessary developmental losses – these are inevitable parts of the process of development, e.g. ageing. These are universal losses experienced by everyone.
- Circumstantial losses – these don’t necessarily happen to everyone, e.g. redundancy, miscarriage, the loss of a pet. These losses are not considered to be an inevitable result of developmental changes.
To understand emotional reactions to loss it is also helpful to define some key terms:-
Bereavement – means the loss of a significant other; The Oxford English Dictionary
Grief – is the personal reaction to a loss; this includes our feelings, thoughts and behaviours.
Mourning – is the outward, public expression of grief and may involve ceremonies and rituals of remembrances e.g. funerals. Pet death is particularly complicated as there are no traditional socially accepted ways of mourning the death of a pet. Pet funerals may be viewed by some people as pathological, “odd” or even amusing, but rituals enabling celebration of the relationship shared, acknowledging the importance of the life and death of a pet, can be powerful in the healing process.
Euthanasia is a unique aspect of pet bereavement. One of the most significant differences between human and pet bereavement is the existence of the option of euthanasia in veterinary practice. The term euthanasia literally means ‘good death’ or ‘mercy killing’. Despite on-going intense ethical debate, human euthanasia is illegal throughout most of the world, with a few exceptions (e.g. in The Netherlands). Although we hope our pets will die naturally, in reality this is rarely the case, particularly for dogs.
Euthanasia related grief is distinct because it involves making an active choice to end a pet’s life and accepting personal responsibility for this decision. This can feel very awkward and often people talk about feeling guilty about having their pet euthanased to describe the discomfort involved in accepting this responsibility. It is essential to understand these feelings are normal and do not mean that the decision was wrong.
Euthanasia in veterinary medicine is sometimes referred to as “putting to sleep” – a gentle euphemism to describe an injection a veterinary surgeon administers to bring about a painless, quick death where an animal has incurable disease or injury or is suffering in old age. Euthanasia prevents suffering and distress; it is a final act of kindness. To prevent natural feelings of doubt regarding the appropriateness of euthanasia it can helpful to map out on a piece of paper all of the reasons why your vet advised euthanasia as the most humane option for your pet and then map out your own reasons for accepting this based on your lived knowledge of your pet – for example a pet having poor quality of life as a result chronic pain; not being able to go for walks, unable to play, losing interest in food and losing weight, becoming weak, being incontinent.
Assessing quality of life is very difficult as a pet may be happy and content in older age or illness not doing things they previously enjoyed, this is why it is important where possible to have a pre-euthanasia discussion with your vet and assess from different perspectives your pet’s quality of life and prognosis. Sometimes this may not be possible (such as a road traffic accident) and decisions will need to be made more quickly to prevent a pet from suffering.
Euthanasia decisions are never easy, but it may help to remember that this is a shared decision: your veterinary surgeon has professional responsibility for advising you from a medical perspective and you have personal responsibility for the decision as the pet’s owner.
In the next article, Dr Susan Dawson explains about understanding and coping with grief.