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PET LOSS & HUMAN EMOTION
This article is dedicated to a very special pet, Angel, who recently passed away at the age of nearly twenty one. She lived over seventeen years with a wonderful couple, John and Arlene O'Connor. They adopted her at the age of 3, and from that moment she was indeed treated like an angel. John would always say, "Pets give us more unconditional love in a year than most people could in a lifetime, and all you have to do is care for them." I was fortunate to have been a witness of that bond from the beginning until the end. Although Angel had developed several major health problems through the years, some life threatening, John and Arlene would never quit trying to help her, and Angel would always rally back to health. However, at the end, when old age was finally taking its toll, and Angel developed a very serious medical problem, John and Arlene made the right and kind decision to prevent any suffering. This brings up the question that pet owners must ask themselves at some point, "when is euthanasia the right decision?"
The relationships that we have with our pets are special and unique, and just as we are responsible for their care and welfare; we are eventually faced with making life or death decisions. A decision concerning euthanasia may be one of the most difficult decisions you will ever make regarding your pet. Your veterinarian and your family and friends can assist and support you, but in the end they cannot make the decision for you. You must consider what is best for your pet and your family. Quality of life is important for pets and people alike. If your pet is experiencing more pain than pleasure in his or her life, is terminally ill or critically injured, or if the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, then euthanasia may be a valid option. It is important that you fully understand your pet's condition, so if there is any part of the diagnosis or quality of life issues that you don't understand, ask to have it explained again. In most cases, you will have time to consider all the facts before needing to make a decision. As you make your decision, you may also wish to discuss the care of the remains of your pet's body with your family and veterinarian.
Euthanasia is perhaps the saddest veterinary experience, both for the owners and the veterinarian and his or her staff. It is also the kindest thing we can do for our friend, when medically indicated. Euthanasia, which means "easy death", is usually a quick intravenous injection of an overdose of a barbituate, a type of anesthetic agent, which allows your pet to go into a quiet, deep and irreversible unconsciousness, followed quickly by death. It is humane, rapid and pain free.
Next month, I will discuss saying goodbye and how to face the loss of a pet.
PET LOSS & HUMAN EMOTION
Saying goodbye and dealing with the loss of a pet can be a very emotional, trying period in the life of a pet owner. After all, pets are family and we treat them, and often grieve them, as such. Just as with humans, death is a natural part of life, but because our pets have a very concentrated life span, the cute little puppy that we develop such a strong bond with is usually at the end of its geriatric years within two decades. It cannot be avoided, but its impact can be met with understanding and compassion. And, when the loss of a faithful friend and companion happens suddenly and without warning, it can be extremely difficult for adults as well as children. It is often the child's first experience with death, and his or her feelings must be discussed. Excluding or protecting them from the facts, because they are thought to be too young to understand may only complicate their grieving, especially if it involves a decision of euthanasia. Children should be encouraged to ask questions and deserve straight-forward, truthful and simple answers. If they are prepared adequately, they are usually able to accept a pet's death. When a decision of euthanasia is necessary, the act of saying goodbye is both an important and personal step that should be taken. Whether it is a last evening spent with the pet at the hospital, this goodbye is very helpful in managing the normal and health feelings of grief, sorrow, and sense of loss. Farewells are always difficult, and knowing that your decision is both right and kind for the pet is an important step in accepting the loss.
Often, well-meaning family and friends may not realize how important your pet was to you and may fail to comprehend what you are going through. Sitting down with them and discussion your feelings is important so that they can understand the intensity of your grief. You must also be honest with yourself about the deeper feelings of your loss. If despair mounts, talk to someone who has been through the loss of a pet, who will take the time to listen to you talk about your pet and the illness and death. Then, if you or someone you know is still struggling with the loss of a pet, it may be best to get in touch with someone trained to understand the grieving process such as a grief counselor, clergyman, social worker, physician, or psychologist. Your veterinarian certainly understands the human/animal bond and your feelings of grief and sorrow, and may be able to direct you to a pet loss support group or hot line. Talking about the loss of your pet is always the first step and usually the most important one in helping you get through this difficult time.
Next month we will discuss the stages of grief.
PET LOSS & HUMAN EMOTION
Grief, for some individuals, can be the most difficult emotion to deal with on a personal level. Whether it is for a member of your immediate family, a relative, friend, or family pet, adjusting to a life without that individual or pet can be a long, trying period. Over the years, many people have confided in me that the loss of a favorite pet was more troubling to them than when they lost a relative or acquaintance. I think that this is because our pets, on a daily basis, depend on us so much, similar to a special needs child. Our life becomes centered on their care, exercise, and medical needs, to the point that there is a tremendous void when they are no longer with us. So how do we face the loss of our special friend? I think that it is very important to know that it is natural and normal to feel sorrow and sadness with their loss, everyone experiences it, although at different levels, and understanding the grieving process is the first step in accepting the loss of our pet. There are four main stages of grief: denial, anger, guilt, and acceptance. We may or may not experience each stage, and the order that we encounter each emotion can vary. Denial can start even while your pet is still alive, after learning about an injury, or receiving the diagnosis of a serious illness. This is when talking with your veterinarian, spending time with your pet, and saying goodbye are very important steps to help you accept the reality of your loss.
Anger frequently follows denial and is often directed towards people you normally love and respect, including your family and your veterinarian. You may say things that you really do not mean and strike out at people unfairly.
Guilt usually follows anger and can be the most difficult period to get through, because it is frequently accompanied with depression. It is the period of your greatest sense of loss when you may be drained of energy and direction, and a time that you may need special assistance to learn to cope with life without your friend. Acceptance son follows, once you are able to resolve the other issues and come to terms with your feelings. However, in some situations, the feelings of denial, anger, guilt/depression may reappear, but are usually resolved easier and quicker with each recurrence. With time, sadness will be replaced with the happy and fond memories of your pet.
By understanding these stages of grief, you will be better prepared to cope with your own feelings of loss and assist others with theirs.
PET LOSS & HUMAN EMOTION
After the loss of a special pet, many people struggle with the decision of when (or if) to get another pet, especially if euthanasia was necessary. Sometimes, the initial reaction is that by getting a new pet, this will somehow diminish the bond that the deceased pet shared with the family. Also, if members of the family are still grieving, this can be an especially difficult time to consider this. It is generally best to wait until all family members have resolved their grief before discussing the adoption of a new pet. When counseling clients, I try to focus on the wonderful home that they provided for their pet and the bond and love that they shared. I ask them to recall the joy of the special times spent together, the quiet sense of understanding that they shared and quirky traits that they may have had. By remembering those things, we begin to realize how important a special relationship with a pet becomes. Although our deceased companions cannot be replaced, the bond that was shared with them can be rekindled over time with another pet. The love and joy that we give to our pets is always returned ten-fold.
There are many short stories and poems that celebrate the human-animal bond. Here is one of my favorites, as it appeared in the Dear Abby column:
There is a bridge that connects heaven and earth that is called the
When a beloved pet dies, it goes to this place. There is always food, water, and warm spring weather there, and all the old and frail animals become young again while those who were maimed are once made whole. Here they play all day.
The only thing missing is that they are not with their own special person who loved them so very much on earth. So, each day they run and play until the day comes with one of them suddenly stops playing and looks up! The nose twitches! The ears go up, and the eyes are staring because they have waited so very, very long. And suddenly this pet runs from the group!
You have been seen! When you and your pet meet, you take him or her in your arms and embrace. Your face is kissed again and again, and you can once again look into the beautiful eyes of your beloved pet. Then you both cross the