Pet Loss

Providing Hospice Care for Cats

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As veterinary care for cats is becoming more and more sophisticated and as more cat guardians understand the importance of  a lifetime of preventive care, cats live longer lives.  But despite all of that, cats still get sick, and when they do, there are often numerous treatment options.   However, some illnesses are considered terminal, and in the past, euthanasia was often the only option pet guardians would consider at that stage.  An alternative to premature euthanasia that is garnering more attention in the world of pet care is hospice care.

Hospice care is about providing good quality of life

The definition of a terminal illness is an illness for which there is no cure.  It is an active, progressive, irreversible illness with a fatal prognosis.  Hospice care provides a loving alternative to prolonged suffering and is designed to give supportive care to cats in the final phase of a terminal illness.  The goal is to keep the cat comfortable and free of pain, with a focus on quality of life and living each day as fully as possible.

The decision to stop treatment and begin hospice care can be made at any point in the progression of a terminal illness.   Decisions may range from choosing to forego aggressive surgery after receiving a cancer diagnosis because of a poor prognosis, discontinuing chemotherapy or radiation because the cat is either not responding or is dealing with side-effects that are rapidly diminishing his quality of life, or discontinuing medications because medicating the cat is difficult or impossible for the cat owner.  Rather than opting for euthanasia, cat owners may choose to provide hospice care for their cat.

Hospice care is not about giving up

Hospice care is not a last resort, and is not about giving up, or about dying.  It’s about finding ways to live with a terminal illness, and it may actually involve providing more care and not less.  The decision to provide hospice care should be made in conjunction with your veterinarian, who will become an integral partner in the process.

What does hospice care involve?

Hospice care involves the following:

  • Comfort:  Provide clean, soft bedding with easy access to food, litter boxes, favorite sleeping spots and interaction with family members.  Handle cats gently because many terminal medical conditions create discomfort and pain.
  • Nutrition and Hydration:  Provide easy access to food and water.  You may need to experiment with special foods to tempt ill cats.  In addition to feeding a high quality, grain-free canned or raw (if you cat is immunocompromised, raw food is not recommended) diet, you may need to offer foods such as meat-based baby food (make sure that there is no onion powder in the brand you buy), tuna juice or flakes of tuna spread on top of the cat’s regular food, and slightly warming the food to increase palatability. Make sure the cat always has fresh water available.
  • Cleanliness:  Sick cats may not be able to groom themselves.  Assist your cat with this by gently brushing, and keeping eyes, ears, the area around the mouth and around the rectum and genetalia clean if she can’t do it by herself anymore.
  • Pain Management:  Cats are good at hiding pain.  Watch your cat for signs of pain – subtle signs may involve hiding, avoiding contact with family members, or changes in sleeping positions.  Rarely will cats vocalize when they’re in pain.  Work with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate pain control program for your cat.
  • Holistic Therapies:  There are many non-invasive, gentle holistic therapies that can provide relief to terminally ill cats.  Energy therapies such as Reiki, Healing Touch, Tellington Touch and others are particularly effective.

A time of peace for cat and human

Despite the logistic and emotional challenges hospice care presents for cats and their humans, it can also be a time of great peace and increased bonding with your beloved feline companion.  It also allows for a gentle preparation  for the impending loss for both cat and human.   Diagnosis of a terminal illness does not have to be the end – it can be the beginning of a deepening, peaceful, final phase of life for both cat and human.

Life after Loss: Getting a New Cat

Getting a new pet after losing a beloved animal companion can be very difficult for many pet parents.  Some are able to get a new pet within days of losing the old pet, others may take months and sometimes even years, or never get another pet again. This is not a decision that anyone else can make for you – there are too many factors that play into it to allow for some easy guidelines, but perhaps, the following can provide a better understanding of the process.

Each pet is unique

First and foremost, every pet guardian knows that it’s not possible to ever replace a lost pet, but that doesn’t change the fact that to many, it still feels like that’s exactly what they’re doing when they bring another animal into their lives. It helps to remember that each and every animal is unique, and that your relationship with the new pet will probably be completely different than the one you had with your lost loved one. I’d like to think that our animals would want us to open our hearts to another; that, in fact, they are celebrating when we’ve recovered from our grief over losing them enough to even begin to contemplate  a new addition to the family.

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How do you know when the time is right?

How do you know when the time is right? This varies from person to person. Just like grief is an individual journey, so is opening your heart to another animal. Don’t judge others, or yourself, if you’re not ready, or if you’re ready before others may feel that it’s appropriate.

This issue can be complicated in families where one family member may be ready for another pet, but the other is still deeply immersed in grieving the lost companion. This will require honest and caring discussions. Don’t surprise the family member who is not ready with a new puppy or kitten – rather than bringing happiness, this may complicate their grief, and it’s not fair to a new animal to come into this type of situation. Be mindful of other animals in the household who may also be grieving the loss, and think about whether a new pet would help them or whether it would add to their stress.

Think carefully about what kind of an animal you want to get. You may love a certain breed or coloring, but be aware that just because you adopt another animal that may look like your lost one, the new one will not be a carbon copy of your lost pet. He will be his own, unique personality and the two of you will form your own, unique relationship.

Do you “just know” when it’s time?

Ultimately, I believe that you “just know” when the time is right. Or, alternatively, a new animal will find you. Opening your heart to another and beginning the joyful journey of getting to know and love a new animal companion in no way diminishes the love you had for your lost pet.   Lost love and memories can beautifully coexist with new love and happiness.

The Final Farewell – Options After Your Pet Dies

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One of the reasons why I wrote Buckley’s Story was because I wanted to help others  who are faced with losing a beloved animal companion.   After losing  Amber, and being faced with the devastating grief losing an animal companion brings yet again, it’s become even more important to me to share information that may help other grieving pet parents.

An article by John Grogan, the author of Marley and Me, titled Bringing Marley Home, really brought home to me how far reaching the decision of what to do with your pet’s remains can be.  If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, you may recall that Marley was buried in the Grogan family’s backyard.  Well, the Grogans moved to a new home recently, and the fact that Marley was buried at the old house nagged at them.  One moning, Grogan’s wife finally said what they’d all been thinking – Marley’s body needed to come to the new house with them.  At first, Grogan resisted.  The thought of exhuming Marley’s body sounded to him like something “those nutty dog people” would do.   But they decided to bring Marley “home.”  You can read the full article here.  The article convinced me that there’s a need to talk about this topic here in the Pet Loss Category.

A very personal decision

There are so many components to coping with losing a pet.  One that isn’t often talked about until a pet parent is faced with the decision is what to do with the pet’s body after death.  Most pet parents don’t want to think about this issue, but the time when it becomes an issue and when you’re in the throes of shock and grief is not the best time to think about it calmly and rationally.  It can often lead to a hasty decision that may result in regret later on.  It’s best to think about this difficult issue ahead of time.  Some people may think that’s morbid, but it really is part of being a responsible pet parent.  The decision what to do with a pet’s body is an individual one, and is guided by each person’s feelings about loss, death, and remembrance.  The ultimate goal of this decision is to find a way to preserve your pet’s memory in a way that feels right.

Burial

Home burial is an option chosen by many people as a way of keeping the pet’s body close.   People often choose a pet’s favorite location in the yard, and place a permanent marker as a memorial.  This could be a stone, a statue, or even a tree planted in the pet’s memory.  However, this may not be an option in some municipalities, so be sure to check your local ordinances.  You will also need to make sure that you dig a deep enough grave to ensure that the remains will not be disturbed.

As evidenced by Marley’s story above, this is probably only a good option if you know you’re not going to move, or if you’re sure that when you do move, you’ll either be able to leave your pet’s body behind, or go through what the Grogan family went through and exhume and move the body.

Another  burial option may be burial at a pet cemetery.  Most states have these, and some states have multiple locations.  The advantage of burial at a pet cemetary is that you won’t have to worry about your pet’s body being disturbed, or about what happens when you move.  Check your local listings for locations.

Cremation

Cremation is the most commonly chosen option for a pet’s body.  Some veterinarians offer this service, but most will contract it out to a crematorium that specializes in pets.  Usually, there are two options.  In a   group cremation, the pet’s ashes are cremated along with other pets, and the ashes are not returned to the owner.  In an individual cremation, the pet’s body is cremated by itself and ashes are returned to the owner.  Check with your veterinarian and/or local crematorium, there are sometimes various options even for individual cremations.  As those of you who read Buckley’s Story know, I was able to choose a witnessed cremation for Buckley, which meant I was able to be present for the actual cremation.  I needed that peace of mind to know that it was really her ashes that were being returned to me.  I choose the same option for Amber as well.

If you choose to have your pet’s ashes returned, what you do with them becomes  once again a very individual decision.  You may want to keep them in an urn in a special place in your home.  For some people, this is a way to bring the pet home one last time.   There are beautiful urns available, or you may already have a special container that is meaningful to you for this purpose.  Others may choose to scatter the ashes in a place where the pet loved to spend time, such as the backyard or a favorite park.  I keep my departed cats’ ashes on the dresser in my bedroom, and it brings me great comfort to see them there every day.  I also have a clause in my will that when my time comes, my ashes and those of any pets that have gone before me will be mingled together.

Memorial Service

Regardless of whether you choose burial or cremation, I think it’s important to have some sort of ritual or memorial service to mark a pet’s passing.  This can be something as simple as lighting a candle in the pet’s memory, or as elaborate as holding a full-fledged memorial service for family and friends.  Either way, a conscious marking of the occasion will go a long way towards helping you cope with the grieving process.

It is not easy to talk, or even think about, a pet’s death, but these are necessary decisions that are better made while you’re not in the throes of the initial devastating grief after losing a pet.

Book Review: Good Grief – Finding Peace After Pet Loss by Sid Korpi

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There are quite a few books about pet loss on the market, and I’ve read a good number of them over the years, but none has resonated with me as much as Good Grief – Finding Peace After Pet Loss by Sid Korpi.  Korpi is a writer, editor, journalist and ordained minister, and most importantly, a lifelong animal lover who understands the human-animal bond.   While most pet loss books focus on the stages of grief and the psychology of the mourning process, Korpi goes beyond those aspects in her book.  She shows the reader how to :

  • Emotionally prepare for a pet’s euthanasia and understand when it’s time
  • View death not as an ending, but (as animals see it) a natural transition
  • Cope with being around insensitive people
  • Memorialize and celebrate the pet’s life
  • Move on after loss and love again.

The book addresses all aspects of the grieving process, from understanding what to expect to how to move on after loss.  I particularly enjoyed the two sections Korpi presents about afterlife connections.  She shares stories of humans and animals and how they’ve connected with their surviving loved ones after their deaths.  Some of the stories are taken from her own life, others come from a wide variety of animal lovers from around the world, and all are comforting and will reassure the reader that the love betwen humans and their beloved animal companions truly is eternal.  Korpi also offers suggestions on how we can feel and encourage this connection with our departed loved ones.

The section on memorializing methods offers many wonderful suggestions on how to remember a pet in both public and private ways, stressing that this is an important part of the grieving process.   Korpi addresses the role of spirituality, philosophy and religion in healing from pet loss by sharing the different viewpoints, including some from the perspectives of various religious leaders.   The book contains an impressive bibliography  and grief support resource section.

What makes this book different from other pet loss books is Korpi’s compassion, empathy and sometimes, even a gentle sense of humor.  Rather than feeling like a book written by a counselor, reading Good Grief feels like a conversation with a supportive, caring friend.  It certainly provided comfort for my own grieving heart.

For more information about Sid Korpi and her book, please visit her website.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving The Loss of a Pet

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As a society, we are not equipped to handle grief and loss, and many people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving.  This can be compounded when the loss is that of a pet.  Even people who are genuinely sorry and want to express their sympathy often don’t know what to say to comfort the grieving person.

It is difficult to know what to say, and as a result, people often, without meaning to, say the wrong things that, rather than providing comfort, only serve to upset the grieving person even more.   Sometimes, the best thing to say is to simply acknowledge the loss – because the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to not say anything at all.   As I’m dealing with my own grief about Amber, I’m once again reminded of how much some of the things people say hurt, even though they’re offered with the best intentions.

I know how you feel.

Everybody experiences loss differently.  While we may have lost pets ourselves, we can’t know how the grieving person feels, because each pet and each relationship is unique.

Saying something like “I, too, have lost a pet, and I remember how awful it feels – my heart goes out to you”  instead acknowledges the griever’s feelings without being presumptuous.

It will get better or time heals all wounds.

Grieving people know this on an intellectual level, but they sure don’t feel that way, especially not in the early stages of grief.  Trite phrases like these only serve to minimize the loss and the very real pain the grieving person is feeling now.

Acknowledge the grieving person’s sadness and pain without diminishing their emotions by suggesting that they’re only temporary.

She’s in a better place now.  It was probably for the best.   It was God’s will.

Any variation of this will not be helpful to someone who’s grieving.  Even if their belief system supports this, they’re not going to find comfort in these words, and they may, in fact, serve to emphasize their pain.

Even if the grieving person believes that our animal friends never really die and that their spirits live on, any of the above phrases, directed at them in the middle of profound sadness, invalidate the very real pain of missing the lost pet’s physical presence.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do.

This is a classic, and natural, response to grief – we feel helpless, and we want to help the grieving person.  However, people who are grieving don’t think straight, and usually don’t know what they need help with, and reaching out or asking for help often requires more of an effort than they can handle.

Offer to do something concrete instead, such as bringing a prepared meal to the grieving person, or running errands for them.  If you know the person very well and you think it would be acceptable, stop by to check on them.  Otherwise, call them, but accept that they may not want to answer the phone.  Leave a supportive message, and check back again a few days later.

It was only a pet.

I find it hard to believe that some people are still saying this – it is callous and uncaring, even coming from someone who’s not an animal person.  I’m fortunate that the majority of people in my life are animal people, so I’ve not heard this one personally, but I’m being told that it still happens more than you would think.

When are you going to get another one? 

Not quite as shocking as the one above, but equally inappropriate.  Grieving pet parents know that getting a new pet can never replace the lost one, but getting a new pet after a loss is a very individual decision – everyone’s schedule is going to be different.  (Read Life after Loss – Getting a New Pet for more on this topic.)

Don’t cry.

Most people are uncomfortable in the presence of others who are crying.  It is painful to see someone you care about cry, but by telling them not to cry, you are prolonging the grieving process for them.

Tears heal and are part of the natural grieving process.  One of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is to let them cry in your presence.  Offer comfort, but don’t make them feel that it’s not okay to cry.

There is no “cure” or “solution” for grief – it’s an individual journey.  Navigating through the grieving process is difficult not just for the person who is mourning a loss, but also for those around the person.  The best thing any of us can do for someone who is grieving the loss of a pet is to set aside our own discomfort with death and loss and gently support them in their grief.

How to Cope With Losing a Pet

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For those of us who share our lives with animals, it’s inevitable that at some point, we will be dealing with losing these beloved friends.  Over the last ten years, I’ve lost three cats, and I’ve helped many clients through pet loss during the years I worked in veterinary clinics.  As a result, I’m often asked how to cope with losing a pet.

Different things work for different people.  Each situation is unique.  Was the death sudden?  Did it come after a prolonged illness?  Was it the first time the person experienced losing a pet?   I share my own experience of dealing with pet loss and grief in Buckley’s Story – Lessons from a Feline Master Teacher, and maybe my readers will find some commonalities with what I went through.  Even though no two people will deal with pet loss in exactly the same way, I’ve found some common things that can help ease the pain at least a little.  I’ll also share some resources at the end of this article that have helped me when I’ve had to deal with grief and loss.

Acknowledge that losing a pet is a very difficult experience.  Many people, especially people who don’t have pets, don’t realize that losing a pet can often be far more difficult than losing a person.  Many of us view our pets as children, especially if we don’t have children of our own.  For most pet owners, losing a pet is very much like losing a child.    Don’t let anyone tell you that you should “get over it,” “it was only an animal,” or, even worse, “you can always get another one.”  Expect to feel the same emotions you would feel after a person close to you dies.  In Elizabeth Kuebler Ross’ model, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventually acceptance.  Expect that some of these stages may be magnified after losing a pet.

Mark the pet’s passing with some sort of ritual.  It’s important to acknowledge that your pet is gone.  A ritual can be something as elaborate as a memorial service and burial ceremony, or something as simple as lighting a candle in your pet’s memory each night for a little while.

Find supportive family and friends.  Not everyone in your life will be able to handle your grief.  It’s important that you find people who are comfortable with being supportive, can handle letting you cry, listen while you talk about your pet, or who can just quietly sit with you.  Many people don’t know what to do or say when faced with someone who is grieving, so, afraid of saying the wrong thing, they don’t say anything at all.  This can make you feel even more isolated during a difficult time.  Try not to judge people for their inability to handle your grief, and spend more time with those who can.

Allow yourself time to grieve.  There is no way around grief – the only way to deal with grief is to move through it.  If you try to ignore it, it will catch up with you when you least expect it.  You may need to spend an afternoon or an evening crying.  You may not want to distract yourself all the time.  While it’s not healthy to get stuck in your grief, pretending that nothing is wrong is equally unhealthy.  Try and find a balance.

Find things that comfort you.  Whether it’s a walk, music, a favorite book, looking at photos of your pet, or a perfect cup of tea, find small things that provide comfort for you. 

Getting over the loss of a pet takes time, and it takes being gentle with yourself.  If you find that you simply can’t cope, and that even supportive family members or friends aren’t enough to help you get through this difficult time, consider getting professional help.  And know that even though it seems hard to believe when you’re in the middle of grieving the loss of an animal friend, there is truth to the old adage that time heals all wounds.  It does get a little bit easier as time goes on, and one day, upon waking up in the morning, instead of your first thought being about your pet being gone, you’ll find yourself remembering something wonderful about your departed friend.

Resources:

• http://www.veterinarywisdom.com/ is a wonderful site for anyone looking for information on pet loss. The understand that it’s hard to face the future when you know it won’t include your beloved animal companion, and they offer a plethora of resources to prepare for and cope with pet loss, as well as to celebrate and cherish the pets we love.

• http://www.petloss.com/ provides information on how to cope with pet loss, a bulletin board to exchange messages and gain support from others grieving the loss of a pet, healing and inspirational poetry, and links to other internet pet loss sites.

• BooksFor Every Cat an Angel and For Every Dog an Angel by Christine Davis.  These little books are wonderfully illustrated and celebrate the connection between a human and his or her forever cat or dog.

• Music:  Some people find music plays an important part in the healing process.  One particular cd that I have found very helpful anytime I’ve dealt with loss, whether it was an animal or a person, is Beth Nielsen Chapman’s cd Sand and Water.  The singer/songwriter wrote the songs on this album after the loss of her husband to cancer.  The songs on the album reflect the many stages of grieving and healing, and are just as applicable to pet loss as they are to human loss.

• Private Pet Loss Consultation:   I offer phone consultations to help you navigate through your grief.  Sometimes, talking to someone who has experienced this devastating loss can make a difference.  For more information on consultations, click here.