From time to time we will hear from a guest blogger with some insights into how the GDEP end of life training course has changed interacting with, thinking about and talking about death and dying. Today we hear from Victoria-based pet doula, social researcher and an end of life colleague Racheal Harris.
Racheal is currently in the final stage of completing her PhD thesis, looking at the relationships people construct and maintain with their pets after a pet dies.
Racheal’s post appeared on the old website and is reproduced here as part of an ongoing series.
I have always been interested in the end-of-life and death, and the rituals which we enact during these times. Specifically, I think I am drawn to what they mean for the person who is dying versus for those who are left behind. How do we tell the story of someone we love in a way that honours them? How do we comfort ourselves following the pain of their departure? And what of their journey, how can we love and support them whilst respecting their wishes?
How we answer these questions invariably impacts the story of our own lives and our own feelings and phobias about what it means to die or to be remembered.
Despite my interest in the diverse topic that is death, I never felt that there was space for me to work in the end-of-life care services. It has always seemed so medicalised and, as someone who is not scientific or medically minded in the slightest, I wondered if there was anything I could bring to people in this space. It wasn’t until recently that I came to see that more often than not, people do not have the kind of empathetic support they need when they are navigating grief. There is no one to hold space, with compassion and without judgement. Death is perhaps loneliest for the living.
This is particularly true of death and grief which are tied to the death of a non-human animal.
Taking Annetta’s course has changed my way of thinking and empowered me on two levels. On the one hand, it has allowed me to rethink my capabilities, the scope of what I have to offer people who are negotiating end-of-life with a loved one and has equipped me with the skills to speak to people about death and their plans for when it comes. In doing so, it has allowed me to bring one of my other passions, animal advocacy, into my work. Since completing the first tier of Annetta’s training I have opened my own end-of-life consulting business which looks exclusively at end-of-life planning and after death care for companion animals.
The course has encouraged me to speak more openly about the importance of advance planning, which has led to a range of opportunities to discuss this (in relation to pets and companion animals) in the academic community here in Australia and internationally. Bringing attention to the importance of acknowledging grief and the emotional needs of people in this space is hugely rewarding and, as we continue to rely on the unfailing companionship of our pets, is a topic to which we will owe more and more of ourselves.
I appreciate the way that the Gentle Death Education and Planning content approached the discussion of dying and death from an evidence-based perspective, and also one which was inclusive of the myriad different lifestyles that people lead. While my own interest in death ritual extends beyond the point of death, to consider afterlife belief, religion, and spirituality (which are not covered in the course), I found that, as an educator, Annetta encouraged me to explore how my own interests and beliefs played a prominent role in my understanding of death and also what it means to have a good death. Similarly, she offered a safe space in which to challenge some of my enduring assumptions and prejudices about what a good death looks like.
I am nearing the end of my doctoral studies, so am looking forward to taking the skills I have learned during my research in the field of animal death studies and fusing them with the practical skills gained from Annetta’s course. My goal is to deliver a holistic service to people who are going through the end-of-life with one of their pets and to bring more attention to the emotional impact which this loss has on our lives.
Beyond this, I also hope to destigmatise the way that companion animals are mourned after death. Helping people to pre-plan for the inevitable death of their pets also gives them the opportunity to contemplate how that pet, and the relationship they have shared with it, might be memorialised and remembered in a way that not only honours the life of that animal – but the deep emotional bonds that are inherent in these relationships.
While my business has only briefly been in operation, I have learnt a lot about engaging people in end-of-life discussions. Whilst we might find that most people avoid the topic when it’s related to their own mortality, they are even less inclined to consider the mortality of their pets. This has presented something of a challenge when marketing the business and attracting people to my services, but it is a challenge which I continue to work on and one which is likely to see me expand my services and my skill set in the future.
I have been very lucky to collaborate with Annetta on upcoming modules, which will be available in later tiers of her course. These will focus explicitly on animal death and interrogate how we, as animal owners and guardians, might disrupt the existing narrative of animal death and its associated grief.
If you have an interest in end-of-life care, I recommend taking this course. Even if you’re not sure yet what unique service you can bring to the field, the content is so diverse that you are bound to come upon something that fits with you and your own ideas. If nothing else, invest in your own end of life plan by educating yourself about what is possible and determining how it is that you would like to be remembered, how you would like to tell your own story.