Saying goodbye to our pets is one of the hardest things we ever have to do. As pets walk into our lives, our homes, and our families, they also walk into our hearts forever. After spending over a year working with individuals that have had to say goodbye to their pets with the Hampton Roads Pet Loss Support Group, I have come to realize that there are many misconceptions in our society about pet loss that make it an even more difficult time for grieving pet owners. These are five popular misconceptions about pet loss, as well as the reality most pet owners face.
Misconception #1: Grief only begins once the pet is gone. Reality: The grief that comes along with saying goodbye to your friend starts the second you receive the diagnosis that your pet has cancer, a serious illness, or that there are limited additional therapies that can make them comfortable as they age. This grief is called anticipatory grief and is a very real form of grief and can be very strong. Pet owners facing a difficult diagnosis may experience some or all of the stages of grief (denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance) as they anticipate the loss of their friend. Some owners express that this anticipation is even stronger than the grief that begins after euthanasia when the pet is gone, as often there is a sense of relief that the pet is no longer suffering.
Misconception #2: I will just “know” when the time is right for euthanasia. Reality: There is no “perfect” time for euthanasia. There is a window of time from terminal diagnosis to natural death, in which euthanasia may be considered appropriate. Within that window, the decision to euthanize a pet is a very personal one for each family. Working with the family’s veterinarian, owners should begin to develop their own decision-making guide for their pet. For some owners a loss of appetite may be their indication that their pet is ready, while for others their pet may continue to eat despite uncontrollable pain or loss of motor function. Discussing the pet’s personality, diagnosis, symptoms, progression, and role within the family will assist the family’s veterinarian in helping decide when the time may be right. Ultimately, I encourage family members to discuss their pet together to help decide when the most appropriate time to say goodbye to that pet, prior to any true suffering.
Misconception #3: No one will understand. Reality: There are people who understand the depth of your grief. They may not be your friends, family members, or co-workers, but they are out there. Here in Hampton Roads, we are lucky enough to have the Hampton Roads Pet Loss Support Group, which provides a safe place for pet owners to discuss their feelings and to lend support to others going through similar experiences. Meetings are held monthly and alternate between the Main Library in Hampton, VA and Central Library in Virginia Beach, VA. Meetings begin at 6pm, are always free, and are open to the public. Meetings typically consist of a small group of pet owners, a licensed clinical social worker who facilitates the meetings, and myself, a hospice veterinarian. Meetings start with a short video about pet loss and a brief presentation of the normal grief process, followed by an open discussion by those in attendance.
Misconception #4: Time heals all wounds. Reality: Dealing with your grief in a healthy way requires work. Just as the funeral ritual helps people acknowledge and express their grief when a human friend or relative passes away, rituals can also help during the grief journey after the loss of a pet. Grief work can include creating a pet memorial, keeping a journal of your emotions and memories, lighting a memorial candle, writing a letter to your pet, or having a small service to spread your pet’s ashes. Children are especially good at creating artwork and poetry to honor their lost friends. Many veterinarians have a page on their website dedicated to pet memorials and allow owners to post their remembrances or light a virtual candle for free.
Misconception #5: I should get another pet right away. Reality: Replacing the loss doesn’t work. Some pet owners feel they may never get another pet because the grief is too difficult when they have to say goodbye. Other pet owners feel they need a pet in the house to distract them from their grief. Regardless of the timing of a new addition, remember that it must be the pet owner’s decision to get a new pet. A new relationship, even a great new relationship, cannot ever replace the relationship that was lost and if a new pet is forced on a grieving person, that person may grow to resent the new pet and/or the giver.
There are many resources regarding pet loss and it is my hope that no one will feel they are alone in their pet loss journey. There are free pet loss support hotlines, online pet loss support group chat rooms (including one focused specifically on anticipatory grief), online grief articles, library books on pet loss, and local pet loss support group meetings, all of which are full of techniques, guidance, and empathy for the emotions of pet loss. For more information on all of these resources, please visit www.HRvethospice.com or the Hampton Roads Pet Loss Support Group Facebook page.