Guest post by Steven May
If you were to ask a veterinarian or vet assistant what the hardest part of their job is most would quickly say the end of life process. These professionals have committed themselves to the pursuit of keeping pets healthy but are often relegated with the difficult task of leading pet owners through the process of euthanasia or breaking the bad news that they were unsuccessful in saving a pet.
As we know, death is inevitable. And with the relatively short life span of most animals, the passing of a pet is something that comes with the territory. But no matter how logically we approach the situation or how prepared we are, losing a pet can be a heartbreaking and traumatic experience.
Throughout my long career working with both pets and owners I’ve assisted in more than 3,000 euthanasias and have been present in countless situations where a pet has passed due to natural or unnatural causes. And no matter how many times I go through the process it is never easy. The loss of a pet hurts. They remind us of milestones in our lives and often represent the true meaning of “unconditional love.”
So what do we say to a person who has lost a pet? And, just as importantly, what do we not say?
“Your pet was so lucky to have you.” During times of grief many people look inward and ask themselves if there was anything else they could have done differently. Reminding someone of what a wonderful pet parent they were, and that their pet enjoyed the best life possible, can help to alleviate any guilt a pet owner may be feeling.
Don’t Say This -
“When are you getting another pet?” This implies that a pet is like a piece of furniture. If it breaks or gets old you just throw it out and get a new one. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our pets provide the kind of emotional connection that, for some, can resonate deeper than what they feel with human beings. Pets demand that we be selfless and in return we are rewarded with unconditional love. That’s not something that can be erased immediately.
“Do you remember when…?” Sharing a personal, heartwarming or funny story about a pet with a grieving owner can help move the focus away from the loss to a remembrance of happier times. And it’s those happy times that will help many pet owners get through the tough times ahead.
Don’t Say This
“What’s the big deal? You have other pets.” As any pet owner will tell you each pet is different and brings something unique to our lives. Would you tell a parent that has lost a child, “Don’t worry about it. You have other kids?” Of course not. Be sensitive to the loss irrespective of how many pets a person might have.
“Is there anything I can do?” It might sound cliché but if it’s truthful, and you’re willing to help, just knowing there is someone there if needed can provide a great deal of comfort to a grieving pet parent. But if you say it you need to mean it. If someone reaches out to you with a request after you’ve offered, and you’re not able or willing to help, you can damage a relationship forever.
Don’t Say This
“Are you really going to have it cremated?” Just like it is with the passing of people, everyone has their own particular desires for how to handle the services. In the case of pets, cremation allows us to ‘keep’ our pet with us forever. By implying to someone that their choice of cremation is foolish speaks to a personality void of understanding the desire for some type of physical presence.
“You did everything you could do.” Many pet owners feel enormous guilt upon the passing of the pet. Perhaps they feel if they’d taken their pet to the vet earlier the outcome may have been different. Guilt is also often felt when it comes to end of life decisions, one of the hardest things a pet owner may have to go through. Letting the pet owner know they responded appropriately and with love can go a long way in helping to sooth a grieving owner.
Don’t Say This
“It’s just a dog (cat, rabbit, hamster, etc.)” This will invariably come from the person who has never owned a pet. They can’t begin to understand the connection we feel with our pets and probably don’t view this statement as crass or insensitive. But you have to wonder if they would say the same kind of thing if they were talking about a family member or friend passing.
Sending a condolence card will be seen by most any grieving pet owner as a very thoughtful act. This is not the time for an email which is impersonal. Include a brief, handwritten note and include a photo of the pet in happier times if you have one. Another kind gesture is to make donation to a pet charity in the name of the owner. If the dog or cat died from cancer a donation to the Animal Cancer Fund or other worthy organization can mean the world to a grieving pet parent.
The bond we have with our pets runs deep. And one of the hardest parts about owning a pet is that we know the odds are that we’ll outlive them. But in the relatively brief time we have our beloved friends we know the joy they bring and we’re willing to deal with that reality. Death is a part of life and eventually we move on. But that doesn’t negate the finality that comes with death; particularly in the days after. Showing the same type of sensitivity to someone who has lost a pet as we would if it was a relative or friend who has passed not only helps to alleviate grieving it also reminds us of the fragility of life. And if that doesn’t make you want to hug your pet a little tighter I’m not sure what will.