How to Cope If Your Pet Dies During the Pandemic

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Guest post by Sarah Chauncey

This is the second post in a three-part series. In the first post, l looked at how veterinarians are handling euthanasia during COVID-19.

Losing a beloved companion is a difficult experience at any time, but several factors come together to make it particularly devastating during COVID-19. From veterinarians handling euthanasias differently than usual to physical distancing requirements that keep us from hugging each other, circumstances are coming together that intensify the isolation many guardians feel after a loss even under normal circumstances. In addition, there is so much grief and loss in the world right now, and we’re all feeling some of that—loss of routine and familiarity, economic uncertainty, concern about loved ones, and of course, for many people, the loss of human loved ones to this awful disease. This collective grief weighs heavily on all of us and can make grieving the loss of a pet during COVID-19 even more challenging.

I’m not a grief counselor. What I can offer comes from my own experience of loss and other experiences of dealing with very intense challenges.  If you’re grieving a loss right now, make sure you do whatever you can do to soothe yourself, within the restrictions all of us face right now. Below are some suggestions, but this certainly isn’t a definitive list.

Take time to say goodbye if possible

Because veterinarians are handling euthanasia differently during this time, it’s even more important to create a ritual to say goodbye before the euthanasia appointment. Unless your cat is in a medical crisis, try to create space in the last 24 hours to honor the bond you’ve had, to thank your cat, to reflect, to grieve and to say goodbye. In my experience, it can make all the difference between being able to accept the loss and being stuck in grief for a much longer time.

If you aren’t able to say goodbye in advance, be gentle with yourself. Try writing a letter to your cat, putting onto paper everything you wish you had said or done, or reminiscing about the good times. Getting your feelings out and onto the page can be helpful, especially in the absence of being able to receive in-person social support. If a letter doesn’t feel right to you, veterinarian Karen Fine has a helpful guide to writing your pet’s obituary. Whatever comes up for you, let it out.

Become as present as possible (over and over again)

See if you can focus on the sensations around you. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 practice: Name five things you can see, four things you can touch or feel physically, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Bring yourself fully into your present environment, focusing on what is here right nowStaying fiercely present is one of the most helpful practices I’ve found for easing emotional distress.

You don’t have to know how you’re going to get through the rest of your life without your beloved companion. You don’t even have to know how you’re going to get through the pandemic, or this week, or today. Those are just concepts; the future doesn’t exist yet.

Show yourself compassion

I’ve written a lot about the importance of self-compassion. Notice the intensity of love you feel for your pet—because you still do, even now—and see whether you can show yourself some of that love. To the extent you’re able, treat yourself to a special meal, or a long walk in nature, or a bubble bath with a candle lit. Do whatever soothes you.

My favorite practice for extremely challenging times is to come back to the breath, over and over again. The breath is always there, wherever you are, in solitude or not. Focus all your attention on the breath. Place a hand on your abdomen or your heart and breathe into it. Acknowledge that you’re feeling pain.

I find it helpful to imagine my heart connected with all the other people around the world who are experiencing the same challenge. When I wash my hands, for example, I picture myself connected to all the other people around the world who are washing their hands to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and healthy. You are now part of a unique cohort of people grieving the loss of a pet. Imagining yourself as part of this group, linked to them through a shared pain of loss, and offer yourself some comfort.

Move your body

Exercise has multiple benefits, including helping us move from rumination in our minds to becoming present in our bodies. In my experience, exercise is also helpful in allowing grief to move through the body. Like all emotions, grief is energy that wants to be acknowledged and released. If you’re in an area where you can safely go outside and walk or run, do that. If your thoughts become overwhelming, try the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise from the previous section while you’re walking. This will help bring you back into the moment.

Other ways to get moving can be yoga, Pilates, jumping jacks, walking/running in place, dancing, or even just shaking your body like a rag doll. All of these have multiple benefits, though personally, I find cardio-type exercises more helpful for releasing anger, and meditative exercises more helpful for soothing sadness. Listen to your body. It knows what you need.

If you can’t bring yourself to exercise, don’t beat yourself up. Do whatever you need to do to get through this time.

Seek out nature, if possible

The benefits of spending time in nature are myriad and well-documented. When it comes to grief, one particular benefit stands out: Nature can help us to ruminate less. After the shock of loss, we often subject ourselves to second-guessing and worrying about whether we made the right decision. If you can, go outside where you can see plants and trees. We humans and the animals we love are expressions of nature, not separate from it.

If you are unable to get outside, focus as deeply as you can on a single plant in your home. Allow it to captivate your imagination and give you a brief respite from your thoughts.

If you can’t do any of these things, that’s okay. Allow whatever you’re feeling. Beating yourself up only makes you feel worse; it doesn’t accomplish anything useful.

Please know that you are not alone, even though your grief is unique to your cat. Approximately 15,000 domestic cats die of old age-related conditions every day in the United States alone (and roughly an equal number of companion dogs). That’s a huge amount of grief and loss, in the midst of a pandemic defined by grief and loss.

My heart breaks for all the people who are now grieving in solitude, without being able to even receive a hug. In a simpler time, it was possible to go see friends, receive hugs and consolation, distract ourselves with work. But now, the task is to face our grief physically alone, yet emotionally connected.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss ways you can reach out for support while self-isolating.

If you’ve lost a cat since the beginning of March 2020, please share what types of self-care helped you in the comments.

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Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.

26 Comments on How to Cope If Your Pet Dies During the Pandemic

  1. Rachel
    May 22, 2020 at 12:13 pm (1 week ago)

    I had to say goodbye to my precious girl, Mila on April 30th. She would have been 13 in July. She was the most special and amazing, sweet, unique, loyal and precious companion to me and I am missing her so deeply still, the grief is so painful and my tears have not stopped. 40 days prior, her cancer symptoms appeared as tumors in 2 paws. She had lung cancer and it had spread. I had noticed she had lost weight over the last year, and I tried to remedy that on my own. She had never been to the vet as a healthy, vibrant, athletic indoor cat since she was a kitten. I immediately went into research mode, as I found these holistic liquid herbs to give her to help her. I was advised by a holistic vet I had an appt with online to give them to her. She was also on prescribed meds (pain and steroids) by the other vet who diagnosed her cancer, but I was told it would be palliative care. The lung-digit cancer she was diagnosed with was very aggressive. I refused to accept this and believe this. I thought we would beat this, I couldn’t imagine my life without her. She was too young to die and she was too important to me and my 9 year old daughter.
    The herbs seemed to help her energy, but the tumor growth continued and within the last week of April, she stopped eating and her breathing started to become strained. I was heartbroken and didn’t want to bring her into the vet and stress her out further, but the vet advised me that I needed to make that decision soon. I was able to have a travelling vet come to our home instead. She told us that Mila had little air in her lungs. She was giving herself a bath that day and looking out of our window watching the birds, with so much will to live, I knew she wanted to live. But she hadn’t eaten in almost 4 days, I was syringe feeding her bone broth and she wasn’t getting off of my bed anymore. The decision to let her to go sleep was surreal, the anticipatory grief felt as if my heart was being ripped out of my chest. (I just realized now as I am writing this, I have been crying for 5 weeks straight.) I knew I had to say goodbye to her, but the permanence of the goodbye wasn’t something I could comprehend. It still isn’t. My daughter and I each wrote a letter to Mila and we read them to her as she was lying on my bed, before the vet arrived that day. We broke down in tears as we told her just how special she was. I told her how sorry I am and how much she was loved and will be so deeply missed. I asked her to visit me in my dreams, and told her she would be with God now and she will no longer be in pain. When the vet arrived, I can still remember every moment of what happened afterwards. I have visions of seeing her eyes enlarge as she left her body, as I stroked her gray tiger “M” on her forehead and told her I loved her and it was okay. I have never felt so much pain or grieved so deeply. Since then, I have been in a sort of trance…I am finally coming out of it a little more day by day. I have done a lot of reading on processing grief, the stages of grief and pet loss. And I also did a lot of research on her condition and felt incredible guilt for not doing things differently. I know it isn’t helpful for my grief but I needed answers and I needed to know what else I should have done. I found helpful supplements I should have given her instead, and I wish I had taken her to a holistic vet instead too. I think she would still be here if I had taken sooner action when I noticed her weight loss over time. I know the guilt is another layer of grief that makes it that much painful, but its something I am dealing with. I’m not quite sure how to work through all of my remorse, because shes no longer here and I feel she could be if I had made different choices. I’m also ,turning to my faith in God at this time, knowing one day all things will be made whole again and praying I will see her again. She was so much a part of my day, from first thing in the morning to the last moment before I went to sleep. She even took showers with me. She was definitely my soul kitty.
    If anyone else is going through this intense pain with your loss, I am so sorry and my heart really goes out to you. Sending you all love and praying for your comfort, too.

    Reply
    • Tina
      May 22, 2020 at 8:58 pm (1 week ago)

      Oh I’m so sorry for the loss of your precious Mila…I understand. I lost my Beefyboy on April 23 and still crying.
      Hugs to you

      Reply
  2. Dom Fou
    May 15, 2020 at 12:09 am (2 weeks ago)

    A beautifully moving post. It’s thoughtfulness and compassionate message really resonated with me.

    Here to share my own tale of saying goodbye to my sweet Chonk cat companion, Henry, 10+ years old. We bonded very deeply over 8 years and 5 houses together.

    He passed away from lymphoma on the very early morning hours of Monday, April 06.

    The euthanasia was performed by an emergency vet. My family drove us there. Only I was allowed on the room. I was able to spend as much time as I wanted with Henry. The nurse administered the procedure with Henry in my arms. We were both masked and it was over so quick. She allowed me this dignity and I’m forever thankful.

    Since his passing, I have made a shrine from his ashes, mementos, treats, and photos. I’ve written memories, nicknames, and thoughts into a journal like others have. It helps.

    This death ripped a hole in my heart. Feeling fragile, numb, low… but at the same time so thankful and lucky we got to share time on this planet together.

    Deepest hugs and love to you all going through grievous times during this pandemic.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 15, 2020 at 5:34 am (2 weeks ago)

      I’m so sorry about Henry. Thank you for sharing your experience – I’m glad you were able to be with him.

      Reply
    • Tina
      May 15, 2020 at 6:49 am (2 weeks ago)

      I’m so very sorry . I lost my baby on April 23rd. It is one of the hardest things that I have ever gone through, next to losing my parents. But as I mentioned to a friend, I spent more time over 14 years with my sweet Beefyboy than anyone.
      Hang in there, I think about my guy so often that I really don’t share that with anyone.
      Hugs

      Reply
  3. Amanda
    May 3, 2020 at 11:35 am (4 weeks ago)

    On March 26, I lost my sweet, 17-yr old cat, Lucy Honeychurch, after a wonderful 7 months of hospice. I was so glad and relieved that I was allowed to be present with her the whole time. Honestly, it’s only gotten harder as the weeks go on. I adopted two cats from the town shelter a few weeks after saying goodbye (I knew I was going to adopt, and I normally would have waited longer, but I think it was just as well to do it sooner rather than later). They are wonderful, we’re bonding well, and it has been a hugely healing experience for my daughter. For me, though, it doesn’t help at all. The cats I adopted are wonderful, and they’re my sweet boys, but it doesn’t make me miss my cat any less. I think I was about as prepared for her death as is possible, and I handled that fine…but I think I treated it as an event rather than a permanent state. I’m REALLY struggling with going forward knowing that the rest of my life will be without her.

    Reply
    • Amanda
      May 3, 2020 at 11:37 am (4 weeks ago)

      The one thing that has helped is that I started a journal that I write in every night. I am very afraid that healing just means forgetting, so I’m jotting down everything I can about her habits and all of the everyday, ordinary memories that may fade. Bringing in new cats has helped me notice and remember the little things that are unique to her, because they have their own, different habits and personalities.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        May 4, 2020 at 5:04 am (4 weeks ago)

        I’m so sorry, Amanda. I think starting a journal is a wonderful idea. We always think we’ll never forget, but over time, some of the ordinary things our cats did that we loved so much will fade, and having a record of that is such a treasure.

        Reply
  4. Nancy West
    April 30, 2020 at 3:21 pm (1 month ago)

    Heartbreaking to think about but so important to talk about, and for people to know that they are not alone in their grief.

    Reply
  5. Mary McNeil
    April 29, 2020 at 5:04 pm (1 month ago)

    Our Oscar is on the downside of his battle with CKD. The vet office has assured me that when the time comes, I will be allowed to be with him. In the meantime, we are spending more time together as his choice.

    Reply
  6. Andrea
    April 29, 2020 at 2:19 pm (1 month ago)

    I lost my wonderful Two-y in February just before all of this started but it meant that just as I was getting into my grieving process it was cut off to think about all the changes. I had a medical emergency that had me limited for a month. Since then I’ve been limited by this virus. l miss my Two-y so much and feel as if I’ve missed him for a long time. He was only in my house for one year but I’d cared for him for 12 years as a feral. Once he came inside he was the sweetest boy.

    The euthanasia procedure was different than usual because I couldn’t go to my regular veterinarian. I felt so bad because it seemed that he had been sick while I was in the hospital and I didn’t know it so I feel bad about that too. Anyway, now I need to restart the process and deal with it. At least I know he isn’t suffering now.

    Reply
    • Sarah Chauncey
      April 29, 2020 at 2:32 pm (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry for your loss of Two-y, Andrea.

      Reply
      • Andrea
        April 30, 2020 at 9:17 pm (1 month ago)

        Thank you, Sarah.

        Reply
  7. Karen Milstein
    April 29, 2020 at 2:14 pm (1 month ago)

    We lost our sweet purrbaby just hours ago, heart wrenching. But we spent last night touching him, talking to him, telling him we loved him and it was okay for him to cross the Rainbow Bridge and that all the ones who’d gone before would be there to greet him and show him around his new home. It will be hard for quite a while to deal with this, but we will make it through. Our memories will last forever.

    Reply
    • Tina
      April 29, 2020 at 2:35 pm (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry. I understand. I lost mine 5 days ago, I had him 14 years and he was my first pet. So, I’m not experienced with the loss. I hope that you are doing okay and remembering your sweet baby.

      Reply
  8. Robin Gray
    April 29, 2020 at 12:45 pm (1 month ago)

    My heart goes out to all of you that have had to make the hard call during this time to end your fur-baby’s suffering. I Can’t Imagine having to euthanize or loose a kitty (or dog, or any other animal companion, or human friend or family member) right now. So I am with you even though I don’t know you, because these articles, this site, connects us.

    I have been burning a candle and sending prayers and soothing energy every evening to everyone out there world-wide. I can’t do much else right now, but I can do that. Maybe if we all did something like that every evening (or when you can), it will help in some way, somehow. Who knows?

    I also take that time to grieve for the loss of my animal children and human family and friends over the years, if the tears happen. My life has normally been so busy that I haven’t made the time to really grieve, to come to peace with their transitions. Sometimes, it is very challenging to sit still inside of one’s own skin. So I get it, I really do understand.

    Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and try to refrain from malice to those who are not taking this virus seriously. I do NOT agree with their behaviors. I just don’t want to waste my precious energy on hate or anger (but I will spend some extra energy avoiding such folks!).

    Love be with you. I count this community among my blessings.

    Reply
  9. Janine
    April 29, 2020 at 8:20 am (1 month ago)

    I can’t imagine losing a pet right now. I have always been present to say my final goodbyes and hold my cats when they were given their final rest. It was hard enough when we had an emergency vet visit this past Sunday when I had to take Pele in. She couldn’t put pressure on one of her front feet. Her toenail had grown into the toe bean and sore and bloody. She is my skittish scardy cat, scared of people and leaving the house, and I couldn’t even be there to hold her while they checked her out and took care of her problem. While I waited in my car, another car pulled up beside me and when the clinic girl came out to get their pet, I found it to be wrapped in a towel completely. I guess it passed during the night. I thought to myself how sad they must be to lose one in these difficult times, but then I also thought at least they didn’t have to have it euthanized and not be by their side to hold them as they passed. These are crazy/scary times and my heart goes out to all who have lost one of their pets among all the other grief they are feeling.

    Reply
  10. Alyce K Schmid
    April 29, 2020 at 7:18 am (1 month ago)

    A few weeks ago I had to deal with putting one of my cats of 19 years to sleep. I am also going through chemo at this time so the risk was at an all time high, but I so wanted to be with her as she took her journey over the rainbow bridge. It was a weekend and I was unable to go to my regular vet, but the emergency vet was wonderful. Where now they are not allowing owners in with pets for appts., they allowed me to be with her, taking special precautions to protect me and theirselves. Nobody was allowed in with me, so the person who drove me remained outside. Even with the extra safety measures taken, they relayed their compassion throughout this difficult time giving me the time needed to be with my sweet girl. Everyone wore mask, the area was constantly cleaned, sanitizers were everywhere. They said they understood the importance of owners wanting to be with their pets to say goodbye, and this was the exception they made in allowing one owner in with their pet, where otherwise they would come out to the car and bring the pet in for the appointment. When they got her ashes back, I was called and when I drove to the facility, they bought her ashes out to me to protect them and myself.

    Reply
    • Ronald Krikorian
      April 29, 2020 at 9:46 am (1 month ago)

      Sugar causes problems everywhere in the body. It’s a breeding ground for CANCER! I know a lady who had stage 4 breast cancer. She stayed off sugar for 1 yr! The cancer was gone! That was 8 yrs ago!!!!

      Reply
    • Robin Gray
      April 29, 2020 at 12:54 pm (1 month ago)

      Hello Alice. My sympathies to you for your kitties. You shall be the subject of my meditation tonight. I am aware of several people right now going through chemo, which is stressful enough without a pandemic to contend with as well, along with this kind of grief.

      I hope you come through your treatments with flying colors. And I hope the right animal companion comes to you soon.

      Reply
    • Sarah Chauncey
      April 29, 2020 at 1:03 pm (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Alyce. I’m heartened to hear that the emergency vet allowed you to be there and took extra precautions for you. Stay as safe as you can, and take care of yourself.

      Reply
  11. Coleen A. Ellis
    April 29, 2020 at 7:04 am (1 month ago)

    Sarah, this is just beautiful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I, too, have had so many requests from families looking for a light during this horrible time of darkness. I just wanted to share this video that I did for families looking for more ways to have a virtual experience in saying good-bye to a precious love. This one is about having a virtual memorial ceremony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7DAhzq9It8 This one is about what to do prior to the death: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3ALSMYxyR8&t=139s Thanks for what you’re doing! Take care, and be safe.

    Reply
  12. Jem
    April 29, 2020 at 4:48 am (1 month ago)

    This was a beautiful topic — and from the heart. Im crying just reading it and sending love to all the brokenhearted who are grieving. God bless and ty to this writer for her loving compassion and for recognizing the importance of our connections to our animal family and best friends. We must honor their passing and absence with all, if not more importance to many of us, in as significant an event as when people or others die within a family. We are all connected and can always show more kindness and compassion to someone who is grieving.

    Reply
    • Tins
      April 29, 2020 at 10:21 am (1 month ago)

      Thank you. I lost my sweet Beefyboy last Thursday night. He was 15, had been healthy until bladder stones the week before.
      He had just come home on Tuesday. I am so thankful that we had two days with him, even though he wasn’t himself.
      When we rushed him in, and waited in the parking lot, they called to say that he was really trying hard to die. So was my heart. And it still is.
      He used to have his own facebook page, lol, so he has a lot of friends.
      People who didn’t like cats and met him loved him.
      I miss him horribly. Barely an hour goes by without tears. Especially at bedtime.
      Not being able to see my friends and family at this time is so hard. They text me daily asking how I am. I say fine but I’m so incredibly sad.
      I don’t know if it would be easier if I could actually see friends, or go to dinner, or anything.
      All I can say is, Beefy was my first “my” pet, we were partners. I certainly hope that I have been caring when others in my past lost pets, because now I understand.

      Thanks for your sweet comment.

      Reply
      • Robin Gray
        April 29, 2020 at 1:02 pm (1 month ago)

        My sympathies to you, Tin. Beefy was lucky to have you. I have lost fur-kids as well. Going to dinner and seeing friends only helped distract me, but sometimes distractions are helpful. Sometimes it helps ease the toll of the grieving process, but doesn’t eliminate grief itself.

        I have several groups of friends. We text to each other daily and share jokes and encourage each other. It’s not as good as seeing everyone in person, but it’s better than nothing.

        I hope you can find a way to connect with those that are close to you. If you all have computers / laptops – maybe Google Hangouts? It’s free.

        And grieve, whenever you need to. It’s important and healthy.

        Reply
      • Sarah Chauncey
        April 29, 2020 at 1:05 pm (1 month ago)

        I’m so sorry for your loss of Beefy. The loss is harder than most of us anticipate. Be gentle with yourself.

        Reply

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