4/7/2021

Grief Before You Go

It is years from now, you’re an old boy now. But for the most part,you’ve been a happy boy. You’ve lived a good life with me, I’ve loved my life with you. That’s what makes this so hard. This is why you’ve had to tell me you’re ready, because I would never be ready, not without you.

The vet knocks softly on the door, almost apologetically. They have been kind, given us some extra time. Except I want to scream that I need more. I need another lifetime. I’m sick to my stomach. The vets runs out a line, you close your eyes, breathe out, fall asleep for the last time.

These are the horrible thoughts that keep me up at night as I lie awake waiting for Theo to come thundering up the stairs. Sometimes he wakes up at 2 a.m. other days it’s 6 a.m.

But one day, he won't come charging up the stairs at all. And I don't know what to do with these thoughts. They make me feel sick. I’m not a weirdo dog mum and I'm definitely not a morbid person. But there's only so much "positive vibes" crap that you can stomach when it's 3 a.m. and all your irrational, anxious thoughts have gathered by your bedside.

If you've read my story, you'll know that Gosseta and Theo are my life and loves. I lost Gosseta to my ex-partner and it's a loss that I still grieve. I don't think we ever really get over losing a pet - in any context or capacity.

So how do we deal with it and why the heck am I writing about something so sad?

Precious photos of my beautiful boy, Theo

Well, a few weeks ago, at work (I'm a vet receptionist as well as a dog walker) two beautiful female greyhounds were going to be put to sleep. Their owner had chosen not to accompany them in their final moments (no judgement, to each their own). So I chose to accompany them because all I could think about was what was going to happen and how scared they might be. I'd been cuddling Theo before my shift and I naively hoped that his scent would have rubbed off enough on my uniform to offer these beautiful girls a level of comfort that I could not. That night, I didn't sleep. I carried my grief and sadness home with me, it stuck to me for weeks. I didn’t know who to talk to about what I had just experienced and I found myself getting a bit frustrated about it. I knew I needed somebody to listen.

So, I called Jenny. And we talked about pet love and loss.

Who is Jenny?

Jenny is a trained counsellor and offers animal-assisted therapy from her beautiful home nestled up in the Quantock Hills. I poured out my anxiety about losing Theo (who is a sprightly young 6 year old thing) and I wondered if I was weird. She promised me I was not – don’t let that put you off, I assure you she has excellent judgment! We talked at length – and this is what Jenny had to say:

What if I find myself becoming over-anxious about the future loss of my pet?

Given the pain we suffer on losing our pets, it is not surprising that thinking about this upsetting event makes us anxious – particularly once we’ve experienced the stress of having a pet put to sleep. If unchecked, this could develop into an unhelpful negative thinking pattern. Having such thoughts is a natural part of loving pet ownership, you wouldn’t be human if they didn’t occasionally occur, so don’t minimise them when they happen.

However, it doesn’t help to dwell on them so you need to let go of them before they start to become embedded in your mind or on a constant loop.Imagine that these thoughts (and any images that accompany them) are harmless leaves on a stream that the current is taking away from you and replace them with more positive thoughts such as:

·        “My dog is currently healthy and happy.”

·        “We are together now and I need to enjoy his present rather than worry about the future.”

·        “There will be pain at the end of his life and that is why I need to make the most of my dog’s companionship now.”

·        “There is much of my dog’s life still to enjoy.”

·        “Whatever the future holds it’s the moments we have together now that matter.”

Dogs differ from us in that they generally live in the moment and for the present, and they don’t worry about the future. They are unaware of what is to come tomorrow, let alone at the end of their lives. When we are with them,we need to be more dog – enjoy their company and the pleasure they bring us,and don’t let that be tainted by fears of a future event which cannot be avoided but needn’t preoccupy us.

Knowing when the time is right

Probably the thing we dread most as pet owners is facing the painful decision of ending their suffering when they near the end of their life. Many people worry how they will we know when their pet’s life has become an unbearable burden to them and how will they then act on that knowledge?

From experience gained over the years (with several elderly dogs and one pony), I have always known instinctively when that moment has been reached and have never afterwards regretted making that heart-breaking decision. Whilst I have sometimes agonised in advance that I would find this an impossible decision, on every occasion the animals have conveyed to me that they have had enough of their life and don’t want it to continue. It’s impossible to describe the exact way in which they have communicated that, but it is as much in their expression when looking at me as from their behaviour.

It’s an incredibly distressing moment for us, but we need to remember that they can’t make the decision to phone the vet for themselves. They rely onus not to prolong their suffering and this upsetting event is the price we pay for the years of unconditional love that they give us.

Teasel (with a friend). Teasel was Jenny's beautiful whippet who they sadly lost two years ago.

How can you make it easier on yourself and your pet?

When you are in the moment of having to make that decision, it is hard to be rational or calm. For each of us it will be different, but if you can have a plan prepared in advance – even in your head – it will make it easier to act. The least stressful thing for you and your pet is probably if they can be put to sleep at home, but not many vets offer this choice.

It can help to remember that your pet is unaware of what is going to happen, and will be more stressed by the physical symptoms they are suffering than by anxiety about what they will be going through. Whilst it is ok to feel sad around your pet, try to focus on keeping them comfortable, happy and calm and giving yourself positive memories of them to reflect on when they are no longer with you. Think about what they would really enjoy in their last few days and give yourself space to be with them. If you have children, this is the time to try to prepare them for what is going to happen. Encourage them to make happy memories and empathise with your pet’s needs but also to talk about their feelings and fears and don’t be afraid to let them see your sadness as long a sit doesn’t overwhelm them.

Should you be with your pet at the end?

Every individual has to decide for themselves whether they are prepared to be with their pet in their last moments, which will inevitably be a very distressing experience. I personally look on it as a way of repaying their selfless love for me over the years. The feeling that we have been there for them right at the end, that feeling our loving touch and hearing our familiar voice speaking kind words, is the last thing they will know, can be a great consolation when we look back on the event - despite the distress we naturally feel at the time. Being present can also allay worries or answer questions about how it was for them in those last moments (both for us and, importantly,if our children question us) and the imagination of the event can actually be worse than the reality. Not being present could, therefore, be something you regret for years to come.

After the event

Be kind to yourself after the ordeal of having your pet put to sleep. Try to plan to have some quiet time with your family for a few days even if you feel you will be ok, and let friends, colleagues and your boss know what is happening in advance. Don’t feel embarrassed at showing your feelings, both at the time and afterwards, as it is generally less painful to express your grief as it occurs, even if it feels overwhelming to start with. This allows it natural expression and means it is likely to subside sooner into a gentler sadness which, whilst it may persist for a long time, will not be so acutely painful. Bottling up strong feelings is not comfortable or healthy and can lead to them venting uncontrollably at very unexpected or unhelpful moments.

Grief doesn’t follow a set timetable or pattern and the loss of along-standing family member who was deeply loved, is not quickly recovered from. It can first manifest itself as a numbness, even disbelief, particularly if the loss is unexpected and we haven’t been able to prepare for it, followed by an acute misery and often a sense of isolation. There can be other uncomfortable feelings such as guilt (if we feel we could have somehow avoided the loss or minimised their suffering more) and anger (where we may hold others responsible, or even blame the one we have lost for leaving us). Sometimes these emotions get muddled and confusing, leaving us feeling drained and bereft but that is natural in the aftermath of a painful loss.

If, though, the intensity of your emotions doesn’t reduce after a few months, or you find it interfering with your ability to live a normal life,then you may need further support. As well as pet bereavement counsellors, there are also a number of online pet bereavement support groups or telephone helplines.

There's no timeline for grieving, or healing.

Finally…

During their short lives our pets bring us many positive benefits including the gift of happiness, unconditional love, comfort and reassurance when we are down and companionship when we are lonely. Many people’s lives are made more bearable because of their pets. The fleeting nature of our connection with them only heightens the value we derive from their companionship.

Remind yourself every day how lucky you are to have them, make the most of their unique qualities and give them the best life that you can, but don’t shirk making that heart-breaking but humane decision when it’s time to say goodbye. You will then have honoured them in their lives and created wonderful memories after they pass from which you will derive strength and comfort for the rest of your own life.

If anyone reading this finds that it triggers painful feelings, or if you are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of your own pet, Jenny offers a special online bereavement support service to pet owners, please feel free to contact her on: jenny@equilibriumtherapy.net or message her through her Instagram page: @jennyatequilibrium

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