Dealing With the Loss of Your Pet

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Your dog has slowly begun to decline. She is no longer able to keep up on the long walks you both once enjoyed. Long gone are the days when she enjoyed a tug-of-war or a Frisbee being tossed her way. You know the end is coming, but you aren’t ready yet, so what do you do?

Most of us will begin to discuss our options with our trusted veterinarian. Since they have more experience, your vet can tell you what options are available. Some dogs will go peacefully in their sleep, but others may be facing a long, chronic disease with debilitating pain and suffering. Many options are available now that were not several years ago. Dogs are now being fitted for prosthetics, given life-saving surgeries, and offered medicine that helps their condition. Even so, for many families, these options may not be feasible. Costs can be prohibitive and some conditions require round-the-clock care that is impossible if everyone works.

The decision to euthanize a pet rests squarely on the owner’s shoulders, not the vet’s. While this may seem like a decision you are unwilling to make, the owner must think about the pet’s suffering and not their own. It is far more cruel to allow a pet to whine and moan in pain than it is to be proactive and make arrangements with your vet at the appropriate moment. The euthanasia process is painless; your pet seems to sleep. You can hold the pet if you wish. The vet will discuss the disposal of the remains in accordance with local laws that govern where pets may be buried. Some vets offer cremation services.

Grieving for Your Pet
Losing a favorite pet is a painful process. Grief can take many forms, including: feelings of guilt for not doing more for the pet, anger, and feeling that no one understands what you are suffering.

You may find that you are unable to concentrate during the first few days or weeks after the death of a pet. You may also find that the pet’s death triggers feelings of other sad events in your life, such as the death of a parent or child, a divorce, or even the death of another pet. Allow yourself time to heal. Take the time to go for a ride in the country, visit a beach or lake, read a favorite book or go to dinner with close friends.

Discussing the Pet’s Death with Your Children
Many children grow up with their pets. The pet has always been in their lives and they are closely attached to the animal. In these cases especially, it is important to keep the child informed of the pet’s decline, and the human desire to relieve the suffering of the animal. Explain the euthanasia process to your child in age-appropriate terms and allow her to participate in the decision-making process. When the time comes, if it is age appropriate, the child may participate in the euthanasia. It’s a good idea to check with a child psychologist beforehand just to be sure.

Memorializing the Pet
There are many ways to memorialize your pet, and several in which your children can participate. First of all, you can use photos to build a special collage, a photo album or select just one special photo that you display with other family photos. You could also have a portrait painted.

The whole family can choose a tree and plant it in your yard in tribute to the pet. Many animal shelters provide a plaque or a paving stone with your pet’s name on it for a small donation. When the pet dies of a particular disease, you may choose to donate to a research organization working on a cure. And never forget the power of shopping. Many pet owners look for small statues that remind them of their pet.

For those who like to write, keep a journal about your pet. Focus on recording the pet’s life story: how it came to your family, its favorite activities, funny incidents (such as when the coffeecake disappeared from the kitchen counter), and when she gave birth to puppies. Write a poem about the pet. Engage the whole family in writing tributes to the pet. Then, create a small booklet on the computer (with pictures) and have copies bound at the copy shop.

Some people turn their memorials into shrines. It is probably not a good idea to focus on the death and loss of the pet. It is healthier to focus on how much you enjoyed the pet while it was alive, but do not create a memorial that is a constant reminder of its death and your loss. A tribute should help you remember the love and joy the animal brought you.

And when you are ready, you can choose to bring more love and joy back into your family by making a home for another fur friend. HLM

Sources: and Jean Callahan, Your Older Dog, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).