Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pet Loss: Good-bye Dear Jake

It is good to be back in Michigan!  In December Peter and I  loaded Jake, our 15 yr old Lab/Shepard mix, in  the car and drove to our new winter home: Tucson, AZ.

We were concerned about Jake’s comfort and ability to make the trip, but he tolerated it well and seemed revived soaking up the sun in our new yard.

It was hard to watch him lose the strength to get in the car, the ability to manage stairs, the comfort of being around other animals.  As his senses faded his anxiety escalated.

Our vet helped us assess his  condition and needs.  We had hoped he could make it back to Michigan, but by April we knew it was time to euthanize him.

We have had other pets euthanized–it is never an easy decision.

The reason I decided to write about Jake’s death here is this:  Reactions to the loss of a beloved pet is  as multi-faceted as any other loss.  Everyone is entitled to view their animals, and the loss of them, however they want.   I caution you though to not make assumptions about what that loss is like for others.

Some of the comments people made when Jake died offended me.  Really, really offended me.  Some of them were made by the professionals who were assisting us with the process, some by friends.

Here are some examples:

—Referring to Jake as my “child”.  NO…he was my loved and valued pet.  He did not come close to being in the same category as my child.
–Questioning our decision to euthanize–some thought we waited too long, others thought we were too hasty.  It is not their business, unless their opinion has been requested.
Telling us their personal stories of pet loss (often the re-telling  proved traumatic for the person and they would then need comforting).  In the midst of trying to make the right decision no one needs to have things complicated by a tearful story.

Pet loss, like other grief, is a personal journey.  Let the person take the lead in conversations.  Listen.  Listen well.

We were lucky to have many, many people do just that.  Let us guide the conversations.

I especially want to thank Dr. Lee Fike (Tucson) http://www.leefike.com/ : Thank you for your compassion, wisdom, guidance and  patience. Your  method  of euthanizing in stages allowed us the opportunity to see Jake at peace to be able say good-bye in our home, as we listened to music that comforted us. Thanks also to our dear friend Helen Costa (Ann Arbor) who was always just an email away, willing to answer questions and help us explore options. And, many others who said just the right thing, at the right time.

Today we will spread Jake’s ashes in Michigan and celebrate his awesome, sweet spirit.

I am glad he is home.

Posted by Klara Lynn Dannar at 7:44 AM

Posted by Ingrid

As a society, we are not equipped to handle grief and loss, and many people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving. This can be compounded when the loss is that of a pet. Even people who are genuinely sorry and want to express their sympathy often don’t know what to say to comfort the grieving person.

It is difficult to know what to say, and as a result, people often, without meaning to, say the wrong things that, rather than providing comfort, only serve to upset the grieving person even more. Sometimes, the best thing to say is to simply acknowledge the loss – because the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to not say anything at all. As I’m dealing with my own grief about Amber, I’m once again reminded of how much some of the things people say hurt, even though they’re offered with the best intentions.

I know how you feel. Everybody experiences loss differently. While we may have lost pets ourselves, we can’t know how the grieving person feels, because each pet and each relationship is unique.

Saying something like “I, too, have lost a pet, and I remember how awful it feels – my heart goes out to you” instead acknowledges the griever’s feelings without being presumptuous.

It will get better or time heals all wounds. Grieving people know this on an intellectual level, but they sure don’t feel that way, especially not in the early stages of grief. Trite phrases like these only serve to minimize the loss and the very real pain the grieving person is feeling now.

Acknowledge the grieving person’s sadness and pain without diminishing their emotions by suggesting that they’re only temporary.

She’s in a better place now. It was probably for the best. It was God’s will. Any variation of this will not be helpful to someone who’s grieving. Even if their belief system supports this, they’re not going to find comfort in these words, and they may, in fact, serve to emphasize their pain.

Even if the grieving person believes that our animal friends never really die and that their spirits live on, any of the above phrases, directed at them in the middle of profound sadness, invalidate the very real pain of missing the lost pet’s physical presence.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do. This is a classic, and natural, response to grief – we feel helpless, and we want to help the grieving person. However, people who are grieving don’t think straight, and usually don’t know what they need help with, and reaching out or asking for help often requires more of an effort than they can handle.

Offer to do something concrete instead, such as bringing a prepared meal to the grieving person, or running errands for them. If you know the person very well and you think it would be acceptable, stop by to check on them. Otherwise, call them, but accept that they may not want to answer the phone. Leave a supportive message, and check back again a few days later.

It was only a pet. I find it hard to believe that some people are still saying this – it is callous and uncaring, even coming from someone who’s not an animal person. I’m fortunate that the majority of people in my life are animal people, so I’ve not heard this one personally, but I’m being told that it still happens more than you would think.

When are you going to get another one? Not quite as shocking as the one above, but equally inappropriate. Grieving pet parents know that getting a new pet can never replace the lost one, but getting a new pet after a loss is a very individual decision – everyone’s schedule is going to be different. (Read Life after Loss – Getting a New Pet for more on this topic.)

Don’t cry. Most people are uncomfortable in the presence of others who are crying. It is painful to see someone you care about cry, but by telling them not to cry, you are prolonging the grieving process for them.

Tears heal and are part of the natural grieving process. One of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is to let them cry in your presence. Offer comfort, but don’t make them feel that it’s not okay to cry.

There is no “cure” or “solution” for grief – it’s an individual journey. Navigating through the grieving process is difficult not just for the person who is mourning a loss, but also for those around the person. The best thing any of us can do for someone who is grieving the loss of a pet is to set aside our own discomfort with death and loss and gently support them in their grief.


 Most of us have lost Nick and Pierreat least one pet that we really loved. How do we handle it? And what about when it’s not us but a friend who’s the bereaved one – what do you do then?

A friend of mine, Kathy, recently lost her Abyssinian kitten. I knew Kathy was fond of her cat and I sent my condolences in the true 2010 way – by Facebook. Which is where I’d been following the kitten’s progress and where I learned of his death. Kathy’s an old newspaper colleague of mine, and a super writer. So I asked her if she felt like writing something for Four Legs Good about Cairo, her kitten. She said yes, and wrote a lovely and moving entry for the blog. It must have been a hard thing to write, but Kathy said it was cathartic. I felt the same way about the blog post I wrote last year about my old cat Pierre. He had died a couple of years earlier, but I knew when I started this blog that, one day, I’d write about him.

So I psyched myself up for it, looked at some photos of Pierre and cast my mind back to the 16 years Pierre was with me. I wrote about him affectionately but didn’t rend my garments or overdo it (I hope). Still, it was draining to write, and I felt flattened for the rest of the day. But as for Kathy, it had been cathartic for me. I’d gone through some of the old feeling of loss and taken the chance to make a tribute to my long-term pet. I also blogged about the life and death of our old rabbit, Hef, a former classroom pet that we adopted and gave a safe home to in his elderly years.

I suppose that you make the tribute that suits you: a blogger will blog about it, a painter might paint it, a gardener might plant a tree or devote a patch of garden to the late lamented pet, a spiritual person might hold a ceremony… And what else? Have you ever found some way of focusing your grief for a pet, or made a particular tribute to it? We’re not into shrines in our house, but we do have a sad little gathering of mementos: four carved wooden coffins holding the ashes of pets that we’ve lost over the years. I keep them, in a way, as memorial dust traps. They get dusty, and when I dust the coffins I have a moment to remember the pets they represent. So they’re never forgotten for long. Unless I get really lazy with the dusting.

And there’s another angle to the experience of having a pet die. What about when it’s someone else, who you care about, who’s mourning? A blog reader, Megan, sent me an email the other day. She told how a friend of hers had suddenly lost her beloved dog – hit by a car: “I leapt to my feet, jumped in the car and went to visit. It was horrible and I couldn’t do a thing about it. “I’m basically writing this to find out what is the etiquette for when a friend’s pet passes on? “I talked to a few people … [who] said she will get over it, admittedly the people either don’t have pets, or don’t really like the ones they have: they make messes on the grass, dig up the garden, leave hair around the house, poop/throw up on the carpet – something as an absolute animal lover I can’t fathom.  You know that when you take them on and love them regardless. “Any ideas for a thoughtful gift?”

I’m too slow getting round to blogging this to be of much help to Megan, who’s probably sorted things out for herself by now. But she raises a couple of good questions. What to do when a friend’s pet dies? Is it crazy to send a card, or a gift, or rush to the person’s side? I’m sure some people would say so. “It’s only an animal,” would be the sentiment. To me, that’s a clueless sentiment. It shows the same kind of friendship-failure as dopey reassurances along the lines of “dry your eyes mate, plenty more fish in the sea”. A question to pet owners: if your pet died, what would your friends and family do? What would you like them to do?

Reader’s Comments

To me the loss of a pet is no different to the loss of a close friend or family member – because that is just what my dogs are to me! I know I would be beside myself with grief. I guess the only thing people really can do is be there for them – be a shoulder to cry on, someone to reminisce the good times with.

I have a pet bunny, which many people I know, don’t really understand. To them, rabbits are more like rodents, not family pets. However, as there is only my partner and I in the house, its so nice to have another being running around, and to interact with. I will be understandably upset she passes, and I would like it very much if my family and friends sent some sort of condolence, even a wee text would be really nice, just to show that they are thinking of me. I would certainly do the same for them 🙂 I feel that they are part of the family, no matter what kind of animal you have, so for any of them to pass would be really sad.

I am having to prepare myself for the ultimate demise of my 13 year old dog and my family, and many of my friends, know how dreadful the loss will be for me. I can only assume (and hope!) that they will treat the death as an awful time for me as they know how terribly close we are. If friends and family know you and your animal, and the relationship you have, they will treat the death with the respect it deserves.

After countless vet visits and thousands of dollars spent, my partner and I have made the heartbreaking decision to put our little cat down today. She was given to me only three years ago as a tiny little kitten no bigger than the palm of my hand and has been my constant companion ever since… Not to mention a hot-water bottle and a source of entertainment with her antics. As with every person who I have ever lost, I will plant a tree for her. I will miss her terribly. RIP Nina Ballerina

I agree with LaDi I have recently moved away from NZ and the thing I miss the most is my family pets. Now I had my first cat from 2 till 19 so she was pretty special to me. She used to like to add her touch to my painting’s it was common for me to leave the dinning room for 5 minutes and return to find paw prints along the table top. In her memory I now have two messy marks on my shoulder. Losing her was hard as all my best childhood memories where with her…

As someone who has lost two children, plus several pets, I can assure you that the pain is the same. This may horrify some people, but the hurt is just as bad for the pets as the family member – but just possibly not quite as long lasting.

Sam – My thoughts are with you this afternoon – its a horrible decision to make but sometimes for the best no matter how hard it is for you.

Knowing first hand how hard a pet death can hit you, it would be great to know someone would at least try and offer condolences and sympathy if not empathy. Pets are part of your life and give loads of unconditional love and do deserve to be mourned as a big loss. They leave a hole in your day. They’re not there for play, for cuddles and kisses. You’re the one who misses their funny and quirky ways. Doesn’t matter what anyone else says… You love them

We had two pet mice who were simply delightful, they were curious and friendly and we loved them to bits. They got quite old for mice and when wee Spott passed away, his wee buddy Fluff mourned just as we mourned. I thought I would be okay until I got to work the next day, someone asked the usual ‘how are you today?’ and I burst into tears and blubbered for the rest of the morning. The worst part was admitting to my usually skeptical colleagues we had to put the other mouse down as he was badly grieving and was old. To their credit everyone was thoughtful and caring and was just there for me to share silly stories and to pass me tissues. Bless ’em. Just be there.

Sam – so sorry. It is such a hard thing to go through and you will miss her for a long time. When we lost our dog, I spent the next several weeks gradually writing the story of his life, and compiling a photo album of him. As you would expect, the hardest bit to write about was the end of his life. The anecdotes bought back lots of memories and I read it, and go through the album, now and then, and it reminds us of things we might otherwise have forgotten. It felt like the right thing to do and I am so glad I did it.

I highly recommend it. We also planted a tree for him. We had lots of lovely emails and things after we lost him. Again, I still have and look at those, along with some wonderful (but sad) articles my Mum sent me which had helped her when she lost her dog. My work mates put together flowers and a card and two of them (good friends) bought them around that day, when we had just lost him. I was so impressed and comforted that they realized how much a part of the family he was and how important he was to us. It is indeed a very awkward moment, as is any bereavement, and for them to come around to let us know they were thinking of us, and to look after us so well, was just so special. The things that other people do are so helpful. Talking about him, just finding out how we were feeling, taking us out drinking later on in the week. We still miss him, but now we think about and talk about the good things he was to us – he’s still part of the family years later.

People who have recently lost a pet are finding comfort and understanding through support groups at animal shelters.

When a pet dies, the Seattle Animal Shelter sends a bereavement card.

The cards are the brainchild of shelter volunteer Connie Starr, who also helps lead the weekly pet bereavement group at the Seattle Animal Shelter. “It’s a grief that society doesn’t recognize or support,” Starr said.

Kathy Herbert was surprised when she received a card in the mail from the Seattle Animal Shelter, a sympathy card over the loss of her beloved 13-year-old dog.

“Our loved companions never really leave us. They live on in the happy memories of the times shared together,” said the card, sent in the memory of Herbert’s dog Alex.

Tucked inside the card was an invitation to attend a weekly pet-loss support-group meeting at the shelter, which Herbert attended with her partner.

The Queen Anne residents were still mourning the loss of Alex, a golden retriever-mastiff mix that died after a tumor was discovered.

Many who attend the pet-loss group talk about how hard it is for friends to understand the loss when a beloved pet dies.

“It’s very isolating,” Herbert said. “It’s so difficult to talk to people who don’t understand a relationship with a pet, if you’ve never suffered the same loss.”

Since last March, the Seattle Animal Shelter has been sending out about 35 cards each week, at a cost of about 84 cents each. All of the money has come from donations, said Kara Main-Hester, with the animal shelter. The shelter learns about the pet deaths when the owners return a license-renewal notice to say their pet has died.

“We know pets are often the only family members people have,” said Don Jordan, who heads the animal shelter. “We needed to do something extra and bring about great sense of closure by having someone else acknowledge how important pets were to them.”

Jordan said the cards and condolence groups are not meant to persuade people to adopt another pet. “By no means do we want to dupe people into coming here and adopting, but that would be fantastic since many need homes,” he said. “We just want to let people know there are people who care. It’s just a way of acknowledging the important role pets play in their lives.”

The cards are the brainchild of shelter volunteer Connie Starr, who also helps lead the pet bereavement group. Starr had a 5-year-old Siberian husky who died suddenly, and she realized there was no support group for those who lost their pets; no one brought over casseroles.

“It’s a grief that society doesn’t recognize or support,” Starr said. “You come to work and are devastated and people say they’re sorry, ‘Now get to work. Get over it. It’s a cat.’ You know your pet was not just a cat.”

Starr put together a volunteer group to lead weekly sessions.

Bruce Friend is one of the leaders, volunteering at the shelter after the death of his cat Richie in 2007.

“People think it’s not normal behavior to grieve over a pet,” said Friend, but he said he was so devastated he called the Seattle Crisis Clinic, which put him in touch with the shelter’s pet-loss program.

“It was a godsend,” he said, “the best antidepressant I ever had. This was a lifesaver for me.”

Sarah Yeager lost a dog — an Australian shepherd — and received a condolence note from the shelter.

The death “was absolutely devastating to me,” Yeager said. The dog was one of the last links to her husband, who died several years ago. “You think of the city being a faceless institution,” she said. “This felt like a real personal thing.”

Chris Northcross attended a pet-loss meeting after his 13-year-old rabbit died last year.

“She was a house rabbit. She ruled the roost,” Northcross said. “She knew her name and would come when I’d call her.”

He said he spent several thousand dollars trying to prolong Hyjinx’s life. “I took her to every vet I could find,” Northcross said. “She’s a family member, somewhere between a pet and a companion. She was somebody I talked to, depended on every day. I would always expect her to be waiting for me when I came home from work.”

When Hyjinx died, Northcross looked for places where he could talk about his loss and found the Animal Shelter program. “I wanted someone who could take me seriously. It helped me, that I’m not alone in my feelings. People are going through parallel feelings.”

The Seattle Humane Society also runs a free condolence group for those who have lost pets. It meets at 10 a.m. Saturdays and is run by volunteers. After each session, the volunteers send sympathy cards to everyone who attends.

Herbert and her partner have since adopted another dog from the shelter, an English cocker spaniel that was rescued after it was found wandering the city.

“It’s been an amazing healing process,” Herbert said. “You can’t replace a pet, but we are caregivers of a new animal.”

By Susan Gilmore

Seattle Times staff reporter