The end of a pet’s life can be one of the most difficult and emotional responsibilities associated with pet ownership, whether the animal dies of old age, an illness or an accident. All pet owners know that at some point, their pet is going to die. But the reality is always harder than anything imagined, even if you’ve been through it before. After years of being part of your family, losing a pet creates a heart-wrenching gap in your life. The grief can feel overwhelming. That’s why it is important to think about how you want to deal with your pet’s passing before the time arrives.
Many pet owners face the difficult decision of if and when to euthanize an aged or ill pet. Your veterinarian can help you understand what the animal is experiencing physically. If your pet is suffering from a chronic illness or simply old age, the vet will help you make adjustments for any limitations or losses that happen. Ultimately, however, you must make the decision.
How do you make this decision? Generally, you’ll need to make a judgment about the pet’s quality of life. If your pet still engages with you, other people or other pets, if its appetite is stable and if it is not suffering any pain, the time has not arrived. However, if your pet is in pain, cannot or will not eat, has great difficulty moving and/or has withdrawn from the world, it is probably time for euthanasia.
In veterinary medicine, euthanasia is a painless process that induces death. The vet makes an intravenous injection of concentrated anesthesia. The injection takes effect quickly. First the pet loses consciousness, then it stops breathing and its heart stops beating.
In addition to choosing when to euthanize your pet, you will also need to choose where to have it done (many vets will come to your home if you prefer), who you want to be there and what to do with the remains. Before the circumstance arises, spend some time thinking about these issues. Can you handle watching the end of your pet’s life? Will you feel guilty or incomplete if you aren’t there? Who else needs to be there? Who can be there for you — to drive you home and give you emotional support? Do you want to bury your pet or have him/her cremated? Do you want a specific place to go for remembrances? Is there a favorite place of your pet’s where you would like to spread the ashes? Do you want to keep a remembrance with you all the time? Your vet can take care of any arrangements related to disposing of the body, but will need to know what you want. If possible, don’t leave these important decisions to the last moment, but have a plan. You can always change your mind if something doesn’t feel right at the time.
Grief and Mourning
Losing a pet is no different from losing any other family member. Pet owners often go through a common five-stage process of mourning for a pet. At first, you may feel numb with disbelief or deny the truth. Next you may feel a period of intense anger ― at your pet for dying, at your vet for not saving your pet, at yourself for some perceived failure, at people you care for or at the world. The pain of loss can be so overwhelming that anger funnels off some of the intensity of the emotions. In the third phase, people try to bargain to force away the reality. Next, as the reality sinks in, you may feel helpless, depressed and unable to do your regular activities. Sadness and regret characterize this stage and you may need reassurance and comfort from others. Finally comes acceptance and an ability to make peace with the loss of your pet.
Don’t be surprised by the range of emotions you experience when you lose your pet. Your reactions may seem strange or not make sense. There is no “right” way to grieve a loss of this magnitude. Be kind to yourself. Recognize that you will be fragile for a while. Give yourself time and space to learn to accept the situation and recover. Cry when you need to. Talk with others as much as you can. Be alone if that’s what you require. Do whatever allows you to express your grief. Don’t be surprised if other people don’t seem to understand. There are many support groups online and in person that can help you get through the grieving process if your support system doesn’t come through.
The loss of a pet can be particularly difficult for children. For many kids, this may be their first experience with death. The most important thing to do when dealing with your child’s grief is to be honest and open. Let them talk it through. Listen closely. Reassure them. Let them know that you are sad too, and that it is all right to feel this way. Never tell your child that the pet is “asleep” or “with the angels.” They need to understand that the animal has died and will not be coming back.
Little children, age three and younger, aren’t usually capable of understanding death and often associate a pet’s loss with sleep. Tell your child clearly that the pet is not asleep; that it won’t wake up or come back. Also be sure to tell the child that they are not responsible in any way for the death; that nothing they did or didn’t do could have made a difference. Children this age may exhibit some distress, particularly in play, for a while but will move on after a relatively short period of time.
Children between the ages of four and six have misconceptions about death. They may realize the animal isn’t coming back, but they can only process the loss as if the animal exists and lives underground or is asleep. It is not uncommon for kids this age to express anger or to temporarily regress in certain ways, such as having bladder or bowel problems or trouble sleeping. Again, you will need to reassure children this age that they are not responsible for the death and let them know that it is good to talk about anything they feel. Expect to have a number of conversations with these children to help them process the loss of their beloved pet.
From ages seven to nine, the death of a pet can lead a child to think about the possible loss of a parent. They tend to be curious and may ask a lot of questions about what the experience of death is and what it means. Again, honesty, openness and conversation are the best form of support. It sometimes takes time for children this age to act out any feelings associated with the pet’s loss. When they do, it may affect their sociability or focus on learning for a while. Be ready to talk with them about their grief whenever the need arises.
Adolescents often hide their feelings of grief. They may mirror the reactions of adults around them or bury the feelings below the surface. Again, straightforward conversation, expressions of your own grief and listening will help them overcome these difficult feelings.