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Good grief

Written by  Dr Nicolene Swaneooel
| in Veearts
| November 20, 2015

She feels embarrassed.  People must wonder why her eyes are so red. She dare not tell them: they will think that she is weak in the head.

She bottles up. The self-doubt and pain fight each other inside her; the more the one strikes out, the other lashes back.  Surely there must be something wrong with her? The rest of the family seems to cope, why is it just her who feels the loss so deeply?  After all, surely, it was only an animal...? “I will never get a dog again, never!” she vows, silently.

Veterinarians understand these feelings.  We are trained to recognise, even anticipate the deep grief humans can experience at the loss of an animal, and to try help ease the situation for our clients.  But in the broader arena, such feelings are still hidden, as people fear the reaction to what others may think about their ‘overreaction’. Yet most people will admit that the passing of a house pet does tear at their heartstrings.

“It might seem to affect us even more than when a familiar, adult human passes away.”

Why does it seem to hurt so much when a beloved animal companion dies?  It might seem to affect us even more than when a familiar, adult human passes away.  I think this happens because animals are so ‘innocently unaware’ of the natural progress of life to death, and in many ways so helpless to do anything about their own circumstances, relying on us to provide for them. 

As adult, rational humans we learn to anticipate the inevitable demise of our precious selves, and we learn to brace ourselves against it.  Animals, on the other hand, seem to live ‘innocently’, in the moment, not planning ahead and not pondering past events.  They most likely have no realisation of their limited lifespan, beyond a direct confrontation with danger where they will experience extreme fear, even panic, and will instinctively fight or take flight to escape. 

Animals are also subject to their circumstances, unable to change them, unlike most adult humans.  Household animals are so dependent on humans for most aspects of their wellbeing, that they are like children in our care, so the passing of a pet can mirror the emotional distress of that of a child - too young, too ‘innocent’, ‘unfair’.

As veterinarians we also see ALL types of people cracking up when their favourite companion animal nears the end of its life.  It is not just the stereotyped middle-aged spinster who cannot handle this situation; big burly men have been seen to rush out of the consultation room to hide the disaster of their tearful dam-wall busting.  

nov 2015 dieregedrag 1Unexpectedly, children seem to handle this better, in their stride - as they might not yet have a concept of dying, they will ask what happened to the dog or cat, why did it not come home?  Instead of trying to hide or soften the blow, this  provides an ideal opportunity for them to learn about death.  Don’t be tempted to tell white lies - the dog ‘got lost’ or ‘ran away’.  Kids who are told that the animal has been ‘put to sleep’ might have nightmares when they go to bed, worried that they too, might never come back after falling asleep.  Bring the ashes or the body home if possible, and have a burial ceremony honouring the cycle of birth, life, death, and going ‘back to earth’.  The more we help kids deal with the death of a pet, the more healthy their own attitudes towards their journey in life, towards death will be.

The death of an animal friend will have us experience similar emotions, more or less intense as with the passing of a human.  The stages of grief are well recognised in psychology, and though not always in a specific order, include many emotional upheavals - from denial through anger, bargaining (for instance asking the vet to extend the animal’s life with drugs, in order to give you time to sort out your own emotions about the animal’s approaching death), finding others to blame (“Surely the vet could have done better to avoid the disease progressing?”; “If only my wife did not put the dog out to wee that cold winter night.”), self-blame (“If only I did not take him to the park, he would not have been attacked by the other dog.”), depression, into hopefully, a final acceptance, finding resolution, making peace, and ideally, growing into a richer, wiser person because of this process.  

“Vets often get blamed for not having done enough (they usually do as much as they can, but it is not always obvious).“

Vets often get blamed for not having done enough (they usually do as much as they can, but it is not always obvious).  Vets are trained not to take offence, to understand that you need to go through these processes, and will allow you space to do so.  We will try to forgive and forget if spoke very harsh words about us, as we know that in time you will understand that death was inevitable.  Still, as vets regularly deal with the death of patients, and are qualified and expected to inflict death through euthanasia, these stresses do accumulate.  One of the most distressing, but at the same time most meaningful events in my short time of clinical work, was having the people present while euthanizing the pet.  The tears of the owners often welled over into my eyes.  Yet I had to hide my emotions; my sorrow about letting go of another precious patient’s life; my brimming about how deeply meaningful this bond is for us all. I must don a clinical strength to help you, as you rely on me to guide you through this pain.  The tool of euthanasia - while being battled about to become available for humans - is a heavy one in the hand of the doctors who have to deliver death, especially when they are not keen to do so, as vets might sometimes be asked by owners to kill an animal when they are not convinced that it is really necessary.          

Many animal lives fit into the average time span of one human life.  People who live with animals will likely deal with the death of animal companions several times.  Do not avoid this, instead, embrace it - use it as opportunities to make peace with your own eventual passing, and to heighten respect and enjoyment of your own life, and the ones that share it with you. 

And while memories of the pain and discomfort an animal might have experienced before passing might weigh heavily, remember also that you have provided the animal with good, healthy living, and gave it the opportunity to experience joy and happiness. You gave the dog a good life. I look at photographs of my dogs gambolling in the veld during our many walks, and remember them fondly.  Hard as it is to say goodbye, time and again, I never want to live without the joy and companionship, the enrichment of my own life, that sharing time with animals bring me.  If you resist dealing with the death of others who are near to you (for instance by refusing to get and become attached to new pets), you avoid dealing with the concept of your own transient journey.  Dealing with your own death becomes heavier, perhaps even unbearable. Allow animals to help lighten the load.

I will always adopt a new animal soul again, after the passing of the older one.  They add meaning to my life, and give a reason to go for walks, to find joy not only in their presence, but their stimulus to go out and do enjoyable things.  As I get older, I am more and more grateful for how they lighten the heaviness of the realisation of the approach of my own death.