Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.
Many years ago, I walked through my first professional experience with death. Being in the midst of a family who was navigating their pet’s decline in health and then the process of being humanely euthanized gave me a very different vantage point of death than I’d ever imagined I’d have. I also knew that I wasn’t as equipped as I could be; experience and time solved that in the coming years. Since that first experience, I’d seen even more than one might expect as a caregiver for pets: countless unexpected deaths, even more terminal diagnoses, age-related decline that had become too complex for the veterinary hospice care plan and medications to manage — even a couple of pets who died in my care. I consider myself honored to have been a part of that as well as sitting vigil with families during a pet’s final hours, and having asked questions on behalf of a family while Face Timing with them during an unexpected emergency vet visit when they were at a loss for words after hearing news they didn’t want to hear, all the while scratching their dog’s backside because it comforted them, the one at the center of everything.
It’s been a vicarious education that I never expected but with every opportunity, I felt compelled to run toward.
One thing that every one of those situations has in common is grief.
The grief of families, of their extended circle. Not not just a blanket of anguish, no sir. It’s bereavement that ranges from the kind one feels when they get news and though the outcome of it is certainly dire, the path leaves much to the imagination — a very active one, at times — of grim anticipation. The fresh grief that leaves us numb, raw when that most unwelcome event swoops in, yes, that. The grieving that occurs when the dust settles just a little, and everyone goes back to their respective lives and one is left to be with that disquieting sense of everything is different. There’s the anguish that one feels when looking back and lamenting that if there was more money in the savings account, additional treatment could’ve been an option, if the pet would have only been amenable to accepting treatment. Oh, lest we forget about that kind of grief that leads others to quip, ‘…it’s just a dog — you can get another to replace them, right?’
Regardless if the grief is fresh, long-set in, disenfranchised, anticipatory or blended with guilt, it’s not easy to endure. And, as I’ve seen time and time again, they’re not unified experiences, despite what well-meaning people will tell you. No one can attest, ‘I know how you feel,’ as our respective relationships with our pets are unique and complex than imaginable. The deaths of our pets are also, as one friend recently pointed out, so deeply felt because we share so much more time with them than other humans — even say, our parents.
There are as many forms of grief as there are ways to grieve. Whether our pet dies as a result from a sudden illness, an accident, a terminal disease or age-related decline, it seems important to note that those factors often determine how the grief manifests and how we walk through it.
And it’s not something that we get over, our grief associated with losing a pet or anyone for that matter: we get through it. I tend to think our grief is quite a testament to how much our bonds have evolved with our companion animals, and in some cases, what those relationships represent. For some, it’s straight up ‘hey, this is the best relationship that I’ve ever had with another living thing’, while for many, it’s a pivotal cradle-to-grave partnership. For others, that pet represents a bond with another human loved one who might have been that dog, cat, bird, or snake’s owner before they died, and the pet is that living link to said person and now that the pet is in need of extra care — whether it’s a manageable health crisis, an accident, hospice or even death — this event has an impact beyond measure. Each of these scenarios, each relationship reflects so much about our lives beyond pets.
So, know that your grief is valid; it’s valued (and yes, valuable), relatable, teachable and having it in your lap is very much a part of the human experience as we know it today.
There’s no right way to grieve. We just do it, our way, and there needn’t be any shame in grieving. We’ve enough on our proverbial plates to contend with in grief to be subjected to being judged on grieving our pets or for how long or how we express it on any given day. And there’s no shame in taking the time that we need, nor seeking support in navigating the process.