Giving good grief: On pet bereavement online, one-on-one and in our communities
My email inbox always looks like a bomb went off in a pile of alphanumeric characters. (Incoming!) What’s worse, it’s clear that someone with the organizational proficiency (and taste) of a middle-schooler took to the “tag” button by way of adding a riot of pseudo-descriptive colors to the laundry list of lines.
It was amid this mess that I’d almost overlooked a crucial missive from a bereaved pet owner:
Dr. Khuly: I can't shake this terrible fear that my beloved cat Stevie, although he was euthanized two days ago, is still alive and suffering. To me he was my son, my baby for the last 10 years. I get frequent feelings of desperation that there's something I should be doing for him, that he still needs my help and I'm terrified that he's still suffering.
I even went back to the vet later that same day to see and hold him again and to make sure that he really was gone, and had them check again for a heartbeat with a stethoscope, but I can't seem to be convinced that he isn't just unconscious with a very slow heartbeat because of the cold in the freezer.
I'm insane with grief and this fear is compounding it. I also can't get past the fact that he's still there physically, in a freezer for another week until he's picked up for cremation, while I'm just ten minutes away. I'm dying inside about this.
The other horrible aspect was that he had an intravenous [catheter] inserted before the first injection (I insisted on sedation first and the doctor said that she needed to do the intravenous [catheter] because the vein might collapse after the first injection) and after the first shot he looked as though he tried to vocalize twice and I can't shake the horrible possible implications of this memory.
Could he have been afraid or in pain? Please tell me how to know and therefore accept that he's really gone for sure as well as whether or not he was likely suffering when he opened and closed his mouth?
Thank you for any answers.
Audrey: Perhaps I can reassure you by explaining that many of us have the same feelings after our beloved pets are gone. We agonize over those last moments and suffer the irrational (but understandable) fear that our pets are still suffering within their bodies even when we know they are gone and at peace.
I used to think clients like you were a little crazy until I experienced the same thing. It was after I euthanized one of my boxers 10 years ago. It was horrible. I couldn't let go of the vision of him inside the freezer. Then came another tragedy when one of my dogs drowned in a pool. Eight years later I still have nightmares of his final moments and horrible, unshakable visions of his body at the bottom of the pool.
Terrible as they are, these are all normal human experiences after traumatic events. You don’t have to go to war to suffer post-traumatic stress. For me, it helped to discuss my "crazy" thoughts with others and to find that they felt similarly or had the same burdensome thoughts.
Please, please know that Stevie is at peace now. Now all you have to do is let go of the obsessive thoughts so many of us suffer. Easier said than done, I know. Consider seeing a pet bereavement counselor or attending a group (many local organizations will offer free, pet grief group sessions from time to time).
My deepest condolences.
Try as I might, there’s only so much I can say via email when questions like this arise. After all, what can one invisible human on the other end of a computer manage beyond an expression of sympathy and a request they seek more brick-and-mortar assistance?
Because, whether we do so or not, we all know that after an emotionally traumatic loss of a pet, availing ourselves of community services that address issues surrounding pet loss is one of the best things we can do––especially when friends and family don’t seem to understand how badly we’re hurting.
In my area I know where to send my grieving clients. I have a list of counselors that deal in pet bereavement (for minimal fees or a sliding scale) and in case of a serious lack of funds (or when a community feel is preferred), there’s a local pet bereavement group that meets at a nearby public library. But what do I tell my online help-seekers?
In cases like Audrey’s, when I know my emailers would benefit tremendously from the kind of professional or group-based support some communities offer, I wish I had a handy list of online places to start. But while I know there’s a long list of online organizations that deal in pet bereavement, I’ve never had any direct experience with them.
Here’s where you come in: For starters, help me suss out the best online resources for pet bereavement issues, including some that might help her find assistance locally.
Next up: Let’s help Audrey out. Show her she’s not alone. Give her your take on how she’s feeling. We’ve all been there, right?