Dealing with pet bereavement

What is pet bereavement?
For many people the loss of a pet is similar to the loss of a human loved one. Many pets are treated as part of the family and as such can leave a huge hole in people’s lives when they leave us. We all understand what death means even if we have not experienced it first hand and for many people living alone, their pet may be the only contact they have daily, so losing their constant companion can be a huge blow.Bereavement is the period of mourning after a loss, especially after the death of a loved one

Discussing death is stressful for both pet owners and veterinary professionals, however it is an essential part of being a pet owner.
In the case of potential euthanasia, discussion prior to the loss of the pet may help owners to validate their decisions and enable them to make an informed choice for their pet and family.

There are various causes of death of a pet, however there are other reasons owners may lose a pet and feel bereaved

Euthanasia
Unexpected death for example; whilst under anaesthetic , underlying medical conditions, road traffic accident, whilst in someone else’s care
Natural death due to old age
Unintentional neglect; occurs when a caregiver unknowingly fails to provide basic necessities or care
Court order; An owner commits an offence of cruelty or suffering under the welfare of animals act 2011
Lost or stolen pet
Having to give up pet for re-homing due to personal circumstances ie going into care home or divorce

We would all like to end our lives sitting in the sunshine with a refreshing drink in our hands and peacefully drift off and would like a peaceful ending for our pets too.
Unfortunately, the end of life is never that simple and it sometimes means making a very difficult decision Pets rely on their owner to do the best for them that they can. Apart from the daily care needed it means being aware of when a pet is unwell or in pain.
Duty of care includes visiting the vets when needed, and when old age, illness or injury occurs it may include making the decision to let them go peacefully.
This will probably be one of the most traumatic decisions a pet owner has to make, so it is important that veterinary professionals are familiar with the process and are able to explain to the owners what happens if and when they ask and be able to help them through the decision making in a time frame to suit them if possible. Some pet owners may want to be with their pet to comfort them whilst it is carried out, some may prefer to keep their distance so a careful discussion to find out their wishes is important.
If there has been a long or terminal illness, the owners may feel relief that their pet will finally be at peace. This can be an extremely upsetting and emotional event for everyone, so should be handled with care.

What should I expect from my vet?

An explanation of what has happened or is going to happen if you request it and support  through the process with dignity, compassion and sensitivity

Empathy  –  is the awareness of feelings and emotions of others, even without the spoken word. It is the link between ourselves and others as if we are feeling the emotions ourselves. No pre-conceived ideas and an open mind. They will offer practical advice on choices , but give you the time to come to terms with the situation and time for you and your family to say goodbye if at all possible.

If you wish to keep a memento of your pet such as a collar, piece of fur, please tell your vet.

The final decisions of a pets resting place is a very personal and emotional one. Gentle questioning to ascertain what an owner wishes to do with their pet after death is important to get it right. The owner may wish the vet practice to dispose of the pet for them but in many cases may choose to have a burial or cremation, or they may wish to take their pet home with them to bury in the garden and have their own ceremony.

After the loss of a pet Different ages of people may react differently to the loss of their pet.
Adults may cope better if they are leading full and busy lives, for instance if they are at work all day there are things which need to be done that may help to distract from the loss. Some people may need time away from work in the immediate aftermath of a pet loss just as in human loss

Children Quite often children will accept situations easier than adults as long as they can ask questions and receive gentle honest answers. Children will miss the pet being there and will pick up on the reaction and grief of the adults.
However, if the pet belongs to the child or if it is the first household pet, they may have formed a very close bond which could be very painful. A child’s first experience of death should be handled very carefully and they should be encouraged to take part in the decision making of any ceremony the adults decide to carry out. Allowing children time to adjust and to say a proper goodbye if possible beforehand is very important. Simple terms such as illness and going to sleep are better for small children. By the age or 9 or 10, children are usually aware of the aspects of death and may have more questions about the practical workings of euthanasia, burial or cremation which need to be answered gently but honestly.
Getting the to take part in making memory items such as photographs and albums can help them through the process and if they want to keep a pet’s favourite blanket or collar they should be allowed to do so.

For many older people their pet may be the only companion or daily contact they have, so it can be a huge change in their lives when they lose a pet. They may need the support of their family, friends or other organisations as well as veterinary professionals.
Most people need to have the loss of their pet recognised the same as the loss of a person. If someone says “it is just a dog” it is an insult to a pet who has given devotion and love for many years and has been a companion, family member and friend. Looking at photographs and talking about a pet when ready can help the healing process   It is important not to forget other pets. If there have been two or more pets who have been constant companions they are likely to feel the loss as much as we do.
Some pets may pine for their companion and alter their behaviour. If they do not settle down in a short time it may be necessary to consult a pet behaviourist for help.
Acquiring another pet as a replacement is not necessarily the answer. This may add to stress and anxiety for the pets and owners. It is accepted that there are several stages in the process of recovery from loss or bereavement.
People react differently in any situation, and some deal better than others with their loss. There is no right or wrong, but a case of finding the best way for each individual.

The stages of bereavement

Stage 1 Shock and denial A client may react with shock, especially in the case of an unexpected diagnosis or sudden death. They may be in denial and may need time to come to terms with the situation. Shock provides emotional protection from a situation which may be overwhelming, allowing time to adjust and in some cases it could last for days or weeks.

Stage 2
Guilt and Pain. How often in a difficult situation have we said “was it something I did” You may find that people may react in this way especially if they have had to make the decision to euthanise.
Emotional pain is a part of bereavement and may take time to recede, it is important that people find a way through the pain rather than hide it, or use coping strategies such as alcohol or drugs to avoid it.
Stage 3 Anger and Frustration
Sometimes delayed anger may surface. Blaming someone else for events leading up to the pets death, having to make the decision to euthanise, if they entrusted the care of their pet to someone else, or a court order may be reasons for this.
The question “why” and “why me” can surface, referral to a bereavement counsellor may be necessary.

Stage 4 Reflection, Loneliness, Depression
It takes time to pass through the stages of grieving. Everyone needs time to grieve properly. During this time you may realise just how big a part your pet played in your life which may cause thoughts and feelings of emptiness, despair and loneliness. Long term thoughts like these may lead to depression.
Stage 5 – Beginning to move forward
As you start to accept and adjust to the loss of your pet life should become more calm and feelings of depression and loneliness less strong, but unless an effort is made to change things it is possible for the negative feelings to remain for a long time.

Stage 6
Acceptance and moving forward
During this final period people have learnt to accept their loss without forgetting and perhaps make plans for the future. The pain of the loss may have diminished so that more of the good memories come to the surface, but it is still possible to be caught off guard sometimes. All of this is quite normal and natural and should be regarded as part of the process of grieving and recovery.
This is the time when many people may consider getting another pet.

Children may ask for another pet, but often their interest wanes quickly so the parents are left with the responsibility. Ensure children understand that it is a commitment for the life of the pet and not to be taken lightly. Legally adults must be responsible for pets of children under 16 years.
A new puppy or kitten is great, but depends on circumstances. It takes a great deal of time and commitment to nurture and train a puppy and should be avoided if owners are likely to be at work all day.
Adoption and Rescue – There are many pets sadly taken into care who would love a nice home with committed owners, but it is important that the right type or size of pet is chosen to suit the owners environment. Discussion with a rescue centre is advisable and the criteria identified before going to see any pets.

There are specially trained Bereavement counsellors and agencies who have the knowledge, experience and time to help if you feel you need it.

Animal Samaritans Pet Bereavement Service 020 8303 1859
http://www.animalsamaritans.org.uk

Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria 01252 844478
http://www.appcc.org.uk

EASE Pet Loss Support Service
http://www.ease-animals.org.uk

The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Line 0800 096 6606
E-mail support pbssmail@bluecross.org.uk
For information http://www.bluecross.org.uk

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