A Different Grief: Coping with Pet Loss
Are you anticipating or mourning the loss of your pet, and surprised and even overwhelmed at the depth of your grief?
The lessons in this course are designed both to help you understand and cope with the grief of losing your pet, and to guide you towards meaningful growth, healing and inspiration. Come to a better understanding of the emotional upheaval caused by the shock, disbelief, anger, guilt and sorrow that are commonly experienced when a beloved pet is lost. Learn meaningful ways to memorialize your faithful friend. You deserve to feel comforted, understood and acknowledged as a person in grief, and reassurance that you are normal and healthy in loving your faithful animal friend so deeply.
Dear Marty ~ . . . The Imminent Departure of My Two Little Dogs
Q & A by Bereavement Counselor Marty Tousley
As I sit here contemplating the imminent
departure of my two little dogs,
I feel I will never be able to cope without them. Next to my mother, they are the dearest
things in my life, and I can't bear when the time comes to ask the vet to put them to sleep.
I feel like vomiting just now at the mere thought of it, as they are my children. Marty,
where will I ever find the courage? I will take their ashes along with me to the grave.
I'm so sorry to learn of the deteriorating condition of your beloved little dogs and your
concern with how to cope with their aging and eventual dying. I can only imagine how
awful this must be for you. As you look ahead, you may find yourself experiencing all
the emotions of grief in anticipation of losing them. This is known as anticipatory grief,
and the physical and emotional reactions involved are the same as those experienced
in normal grief. It is extremely difficult to watch your cherished animals' health and
quality of life deteriorate over time. If you are thinking about euthanasia, you may be
struggling with anxiety over separating from your dogs, uncertain how you'll ever bring
yourself to say good-bye. Torn between not wanting to see them suffer and not
wanting to lose them, you may continue to go to great lengths to postpone or to avoid
the decision all together.
Deciding when and whether to euthanize your cherished dogs is probably one of the most
difficult choices you'll ever have to make. But because your
dogs are aging
may not be reason enough to resort to
just yet. Exploring all aspects of the decision with your veterinarian and with others whom
you trust is very important. Keep in mind, however, that in the end, the decision and the
timing belong to you and to you alone.
I also encourage you to keep in mind that if and when you do decide to choose euthanasia
for your dogs, your intention will be to relieve their suffering and to create a dignified and
painless death for reasons of mercy and compassion.
Like most people
I suspect that you're already wondering, "How will I know when it's time?" As
you come to answer that question, here's what you might want to think about:
Sometimes people keep their pets alive in order to meet their own needs (to not feel guilty,
to not let go) rather than to meet the needs of the pet. Hard as it may be, ask yourself if
this could be going on with you.
- What is each dog's general health and attitude? (Are they still happy with a zest for
life? Miserable? In pain?) Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, so even the fact that an
older dog is blind is not in and of itself an indication that the dog is not happy or able to find
his or her way around familiar surroundings.
- What is the quality of their lives? (Are they still living with dignity?)
- How much care do they require?
- Can you afford the costs involved, in terms of time, money and emotional strain?
- What is their prognosis? (Will more tests, treatments or surgery make them any better?
Are there any negative side-effects from such tests or treatments?)
How do you feel about euthanasia?
(Do you consider it an act of compassion?)
- Are there any signs from your dogs that they are "ready to go"? Oftentimes
our beloved animals have a way of letting us know when it is time. Listen to your dogs'
spirits, and follow what your heart and mind tell you to do.
Most of us find it very difficult to think about planning ahead for the death of our pets.
Detaching from a cherished pet is just as difficult whether it happens suddenly or over an
extended period of time. But having time to prepare for what lies ahead can be one of the
more positive aspects of anticipatory grieving. You can make the most of the time
remaining by talking with your veterinarian, family, friends and trusted others about the
death of your dogs
as a probability (not as a remote possibility). You can also use this time for:
As you come to this difficult decision, it's important to think through whatever questions you
may have about the actual procedure, so you can discuss your concerns with your
veterinarian. When the time comes, you'll be better prepared to use your own good
judgment based on the reality of your particular situation.
- Feeling and expressing whatever grief feelings arise.
- Confronting and sorting out your own basic values and beliefs about death, dying
and the afterlife.
- Thinking about and planning what to do with your dogs' remains after death (keeping
in mind what's best for you and your family and what's consistent with your own beliefs).
- Talking to your veterinarian to clear up any questions or reservations about your
dogs' diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.
- Thinking about and planning a ritual, ceremony or other way of memorializing your dogs.
- Making your final days with your dogs as special as possible and making treasured
memories that will offer you comfort later (e.g. indulging in their favorite activities; taking
lots of pictures; taking clippings of their fur; preserving their paw prints).
- Taking care of yourself while caring for your sick animals (by getting enough nourishment,
relaxation, rest and exercise).
Think about these questions, then arrange a time to discuss them with your veterinarian:
Grief is a natural response to losing someone we love. It also is very hard work, and it
shouldn't be done alone. I encourage you to find someone you can trust and with whom
you feel comfortable talking about your feelings about all of this -- preferably someone
who understands your attachment to your dogs and who knows something about normal
grief. You do not need to wait until after the fact. Many people who come to my pet loss
support group are dealing with anticipatory grief and come to the group before their
animal's death or euthanasia. It helps them to sort through their reactions and make
necessary decisions, and it helps them to feel supported in their journey. Ask your vet
what pet loss resources might be available in your community, or check with your local
librarian in addition to exploring
online resources supporting you.
- How will the euthanasia be performed? (Usually the animal is injected with a tranquilizer,
then an overdose of a sedative.)
- Where will the euthanasia be done? (Euthanasia can be done at the veterinarian's office,
at an animal clinic or at your home. If your veterinarian doesn't provide at-home euthanasia,
you can ask for a referral to one who does.)
- When will the euthanasia be done? (Try to schedule it at a time that's least traumatic for
you, and when you can be accompanied by a friend or family member-- especially if driving
- Should your pet be euthanized immediately, or should the procedure be delayed? (It all
depends on the individuals involved. It may be easier to get it done while you are certain of
the decision, since waiting for the inevitable may be difficult for you. Yet a planned delay can
afford you and your pet some time to make the most of your final days together.)
- Should you be present during the procedure? (You know better than anyone what you
feel capable of handling. You should be guided by what makes you feel comfortable and by
what you think you can live with later. Some people consider being present as a final
demonstration to the pet of their affection, and take comfort in knowing their pet is actually
dead and at peace. Others prefer to remember their pet as s/he was, alive and active.)
- Will it matter to your pets if you are present? (Pets feel more secure in the company of
people they know, and pets do not have the awareness of death or the anxiety before
death that humans do. An owner's anxiety can be conveyed to both pet and veterinarian,
but if the owner is calm, the pet will remain calm also.)
- What will you do with your pets' remains? (Be aware that you are responsible for
arranging what will happen to your dogs' bodies after death. Many options are available,
including disposal, cremation, burial and preservation. It would be wise to discuss these
options in advance of either of your pet's death, either with your veterinarian or with a
representative from a pet cemetery or pet crematory.)
I hope this information proves useful to you, my friend. Please know that I'm thinking of
you, and when you feel ready to do so, I hope that you will let me know how you're doing.
Wishing you peace and healing,
Marty Tousley, Bereavement Counselor
Copyright © 2004 – 2009 Martha M. Tousley. All rights reserved. If you are interested
in publishing this article, please email
If you've ever been faced with making this difficult decision for a beloved animal companion, please share your experiences with the rest of us...