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 be difficult to shift at all.
Remember, too, that sometimes a pet 'loss' is exactly that as their pet may have literally disappeared - dogs are (tragically and unfortunately) stolen for dog-fighting rings, and pets may be taken from yards and homes by strangers motivated by reasons ranging from 'for fun' to financial profit. In these cases grief may be interrupted, frozen, and/or stalled by the uncertainty and unexpected nature of the loss. Again, if you are unsure of what to say offer empathetic silence. For examples of what not to say and to better understand the difference between empathy (feeling with people) and sympathy (wanting to fix/make better or make the pain of the person go away), Brene Brown's quick video is very useful.
When we need to euthanise our pets - advance planning is our friend
In Australia today, it is not only people who would prefer to die at home; many pet owners are looking for home death options for their dogs and cats as well. Some of our pets do die naturally and peacefully at the natural end of their lives, but some of our pets need some help to end suffering and pain so euthanasia is a choice for ethical and caring pet owners to make in order to assist dying in a dignified and planned manner that offers a good quality of life up to the end. Some people prefer to have their pets and companion animals euthanised at home, others in the vet surgery. Obviously for larger animals - particularly large farm animals like horses, cows, etc. - home is the only choice simply for transportation and space in the confines of a vet clinic, but smaller companion animals can be euthanised at the vet practice if that is the preference.
It is a good idea to talk to your vet and see what choices they offer for euthanasia for companion animals. Ask about costs, and ensure you get a full breakdown of itemised services in case you want to shop around. It is OK to be a smart consumer, however you do need to bear in mind that if your pet is in pain they will be confused and wary at the presence of strangers, so if you are on a budget or your vet doesn't offer at-home options then advance planning on behalf of your pet is a good idea. I always encourage my human clients to plan well in advance by knowing their options well before the information is necessary. I advocate the same process for pets, so phone around, meet with other vets who offer the options you would like, and make sure both you and your pet/s like these people, and accept them calmly.
Some owners absolutely do not want to have their pet die at home as this would be far too painful for them in terms of memory after the death - and this is absolutely fine and OK. Just as some of use have ideas around our own preferred place to die - home or home-like environment, hospital with a lot of support, nursing home with staff only a short distance away - we have preferences for what we think is best for our pets. You can have your pet cremated, or you can bury them in your garden if that is what you prefer - this depends on your space and tastes. For some owners having their pet's body picked up from the vet's clinic by the cremation service is a good option in terms of sitting with raw grief, while for others part of beginning to grieve is to prepare the grave and grave site, and to lay the body in the earth. Either is fine, and I think being easy on yourself here is sensible - if the thought of burying your pet's body is too much for you then don't do it yourself or opt for cremation. A good friend of mine who has had many cats in her household over the years puts it this way: "They look so vulnerable when they are dead...", and she firmly opts for a cremation service every time.
If you are going to use the vet clinic as the place for euthanising my own personal perspective here is to never abandon your pet completely to the vet and their staff at the end of their life. Stay with your pet as the vet staff do their part of the work, and be present. Yes, this can be very difficult and challenging, however your pet will have an easier time of it, and so will the vet practice staff. Research into vet staff experiences details how pets are frightened by the strangers around them when owners are not present at their end of life, and the staff are often very stressed and sometimes traumatised by confused and lonely pets desperately looking for their humans as they die. If you do not want to be by yourself at the vet clinic for the procedure I recommend you bring a trusted (by your pet) friend or family member with you. Alternatively, you can bring an an end of life doula - like myself - who works with pets and their owners. The benefit of bringing someone with you to the vet is that you will not have to drive yourself home afterwards, and you can sit in silence, talk, cry, get a hug, go to a favourite place, or simply know that you will get home safely if you need to be alone. A trusted person - friend or end of life doula - will guarantee any of these options take place, and you can change your mind as many times as you need to when you have left the vet.
In terms of pet cremation here are good, bad, and indifferent pet cremation businesses readily available in most areas. This is another good area to shop around in well in advance - your vet, pet-friendly end of life doula, and other pet owners around you are sensible options for learning which businesses in your local area give good service and are competitively priced. You can also find boxes, urns, and other receptacles via your pet cremation service, or you can purchase your own and give this to the pet cremation service when they collect the body.
Respect memorial projects and tributes to dead pets
We may not always (yet) feel comfortable talking about the grief we feel over our pet's death, but we are generally happy to create tributes to our companion animal's presence and importance in our lives within our gardens and homes. Please remember to treat pet memorial spaces in someone's home or garden with the same respect, compassion, and empathy that you would to those of a human - being respectful of memory and the placement of objects is absolutely essential when we are in public, and triply so when we are in the privacy of someone else's home and personal living environment. The way someone else chooses to honour the memory of their pet may not be to your taste, or not the choice you would make, but this is not the place for negative judgement.
I have been in houses where pet cremation urns and/or containers take pride of place on mantelpieces and on tables, where photographs are clustered on a memory wall or placed carefully into elaborate memorial albums. Gardens may have headstones, grave markers (it is perfectly legal to bury your dead pet in your garden in Australia), artworks - frequently incorporating name tags and collars - and specially planted garden beds and benches. Pet portraiture is an attractive option, so make sure you have good quality photos of your pet to hand if this is the memorial option you would like to take. There are also artisans who can create keepsakes from ashes if you would like - and I have seen some gorgeous memorial tattoos and art works made from paw-print stamps, so there are many ways to memorialise your pet and their place in your life.
Wondering how to design and carry out a fitting tribute to your pet?
Please get in touch with me - I have an arts background (as well as health) and have a wealth of experience in helping people to create the perfect memorial project that is tailored to an individual's lifestyle while celebrating the life and essence of each pet. I am an End Of Life Consultant and end of life doula who specialises in supporting people to discover and realise the perfect pet memorial project, and I also offer grief and loss counselling services including tapping and psychotherapy for those who are not coping with a pet's death.
Let's talk - you can arrange an appointment with my via email at email@example.com today.
*There is the old saying that "Dogs have owners and cats have personal staff "to take into consideration, however the stereotype of cats being universally standoffish and dogs universally slavish is not a reflection of everyone's experience. Cats often bite to demonstrate affection, and dogs can understand human words and facial expressions very well so the focused gaze is often tied to information processing and inter-species cognition in dogs. The research into human and non-human animal interactions is deeply interesting, and you might want to take a look for yourself.