Death Literacy Intros: pet end of life, death, and disenfranchised grief
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
At the moment I am working as an end of life doula for a few pet owners, and I thought this would be a good time to explore death literacy in terms of pet death and grieving our pets when they die. Even if you yourself Gentle Reader are not a furkid, scalykid, or featherkid kind of person, I urge you to read on as much of the content may well prove useful for understanding how you might better support someone in your life when their pet dies.
Death is the natural end of all life - for our pets, too
The RSPCA notes that more than 83% of the Australian population report having a pet as a part of their childhood experience, and 13% of our households are planning to get a new pet within the next 12 months. Clearly, we are very attached to our companion animals, and the knowledge and understanding that we will (probably) live to mourn our furred, feathered, and scaled family members does not put us off bringing new animals into our homes and hearts. Dogs live on average 10-16 years, cats 2-16 years, horses 25-30, and birds from 2-100+; however, these figures are averages and will vary by both breed and individual. For example, smaller dogs live longer than medium and large/giant breeds, and cats have some genetic issues relating to renal and bladder function which may affect lifespan. As with any living creature, too, a good quality of life is desirable and may help extend a healthy life overall.
I spend a good deal of time listening to stories of grief and loss from members of the off-leash dog beach community in my local area, as my work as an end of life pet doula is well known. This week is a bit busier than usual with grief stories, and I am also awaiting a client to return from a holiday her husband organised when their dog needed to be unexpected euthanised recently. Their Jack Russell Terrier was a beloved part of their family for 14 years, and his decline in health was incredibly rapid and severe, so I have been asked to teach tapping as part of grief support to help reduce the stress and overwhelming sorrow of his swift death. Then, this coming weekend, I will be present to support a friend whose lovely old Boxer has terminal cancer, and the vet is coming to her home so that she may die in familiar surrounds.
Realistically pet owners are often quite seasoned at understanding the processes and journeys that the grief of a pet can take us on - after all, the most common pets in Australia are dogs and cats, most of whom will be outlived by their human owners. It is therefore quite common for people to have had multiple pets throughout their lives, meaning that these same people will also have had multiple death and grief experiences as their pets have aged, been injured or fallen ill, and died.
The truth about disenfranchised grief and pets...
Research shows that we mourn and grieve our pets as much, and often more, than we do the humans in our lives. When you take into consideration the fact that dogs and humans have been co-evolving for at least 50,000 years (by current understanding), and cats at least 5,500 years, it seems reasonable to expect that our companion animals fit right into our lives, emotions, and routines to the point that we grieve deeply when they die. Companion animals, moreover, offer us unconditional love*, consistency, and a lack of grudges and judgement that mean they fill emotional and psychological spaces that ultimately truly enrich our lives. In fact, the step of acquiring a new pet after the death of a pet is a genuine step forward in terms of living in a healthy way with the 'after' of a pet's death, often signalling the end of deep mourning and raw grief stages for a person and/or family.
However, many pet owners experience what is known in therapy terms as disenfranchised grief when a pet dies. Disenfranchised grief is the grief that we do not feel safe or appropriate in expressing as we do not consider that our disclosure of grief will be recognised as valid and genuine, and that we will be mocked or ridiculed for expressing our feelings and experiences. Pet owners, parents who have experienced stillbirth, miscarriage, or abortion, and individuals who experience grief from the death of a personally-meaningful public figure or celebrity all may experience disenfranchised grief. Think I'm joking, or taking grief too far? Try buying a card in your local newsagent that is designed to give to someone whose pet has just died... You cannot, because we don't have cultural frameworks that support the depth of connection to 'just a dog', 'just a cat' or 'only a budgie' that pet owners feel when the connection is irrevocably broken at the end of life.
For this reason, pet owners will often test the waters carefully before talking openly about the death of their pet, checking the conversation and people around them, and using a good deal of euphemistic language when non-pet people are included in a group. When another pet owner is included in a conversation or group, however, discussion of pet death will be less guarded and a bit more open.
N.B.: When someone tells you about a pet who has died, be empathetic and offer them space to talk. If you are uncomfortable with offering silence - often a silent space is good for disenfranchised grief as it permits a person to speak at their own pace without feeling too much conversational pressure - ask them what their pet was like, and stay present while they tell you.
Language and pet death
Just as we all benefit from being open and matter-of-fact with our language when a human dies, being open and matter-of-fact with language when a pet has died helps us all to normalise death as a part of the journey of life. Be supportive, please do not sneer or laugh (although I like to think that none of my Gentle Readers would respond as horribly as this), and when in doubt offer compassion and presence without speaking too much. If you have the capacity to remember names well, use the pet's name in conversation - owners will feel respected and heard, which is important when we are vulnerable because we are grieving.
This is of particular note in 21st century Australia where we have a brusque approach to time management and emotions at the best of times. "It's been two weeks! Snap out of it!", "Get over it!" - and possibly the worst of all of our mis-framing platitudes - "Harden the f**k up, mate, it was just a dog!". Grief is intensely personal, and whether we are mourning our parent, friend, colleague, or pet we are all entitled to time and space without judgement or chivying along to process in our own way and in our own time. I like being a 'soft' dog owner who genuinely loves to stop and pat the dogs of others - Cully doesn't always approve, but we compromise - and to hear the stories of others. I am not in favour of advocating 'hardness' of character or personality as a healthy and useful way to navigate life or death, and do not have time for people who respond this way.
Be careful of making jokes about how much time has passed, in an effort to make yourself feel better around someone in grief and mourning for their pet. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and stay silent if you still feel the urge to joke. The love we experience with our pets is very deep, complex, and worthy of being taken seriously; this may be difficult to understand if you have never had pets yourself. Perhaps a helpful idea is to simply listen to the way other pet owners respond when a pet death is talked about in conversation - we can learn new communication skills by watching and listening. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.
And remember the inevitable language caveat!
Don't ask for details about the death. Ever. I know I keep banging on about this point for human deaths, but it applies to pet death, too. The details are none of your business, and it may be sort of information that is traumatising or generally awkward for the owner to repeat over and over again - if you do have a penchant for tragedy porn, try to keep that between yourself and your browser history. I have written frequently about the importance of allowing people to disclose as much or as little of their death and grief stories without being prompted for details by outsiders as possible, feel free to read through earlier blog posts if you are not familiar with my position.
In addition, if you are not sure what I mean exactly, consider this: what possible benefit is there in insisting that a person tell you in graphic detail about the car that jumped onto the footpath and ran over their dog in front of them? If someone says '[name of dog] was hit by a car' or 'car accident' then allow that to be enough information. And as much as we would like to think that all pets die a gentle, peaceful death - much in the same way as we generally like to picture our own death - this is not always the case. Pets may also be killed by other animals (including humans), so the details of their death may be traumatising for the owner to recount and not helpful in terms of processing grief, loss, and sorrow. If appropriate and possible, in cases of this kind, try to encourage the person to seek support from a trained and sympathetic professional, as circumstances around this kind of violent death may leave a deep scar on a person's psyche that may b