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Dealing with Pet Death
"They're even more upset when their pet dies than when a mother or father dies”

Gilly McNaughton’s mutt, Tolkien, was euthanized in the backyard after a living wake. Friends and family stopped in throughout the day to say goodbye. After a day of snacking on tasty BBQ treats, McNaughton paid the extra fee to have the vet come put him down at home. “He was sedated while eating bison steak,” she said. “If only we could all go that good.”

Even when it’s expected, the death of a pet can crush its owner with grief.

“Sometimes, people are more attached to their pets than family members,” said Helen Hobbs, director of Pets at Peace, Toronto’s only pet funeral home. “Sometimes they’re even more upset when their pet dies than when a mother or father dies.”

According to the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, about “1.9 million pets were provided professional death services in 2012.” Hobbs has conducted pet funerals for over 400 families in the last year alone. There is no pet cemetery in Toronto due to zoning restrictions, so Pets at Peace offer cremation as well.  She has held services for animals of all sizes — from gerbils and budgies to large dogs. Historically, veterinary clinics have provided pet cremation after euthanasia. “I sort of look at it as getting Toronto General Hospital to make your mother’s funeral arrangements,” said Hobbs. The licensed funeral director started doing pet funerals 10 years ago. “The need is there. Pets are people’s children in this day and age,” she said. “They’re devastated when they go.”

More people want to give their pets the same final send-off they would give their human family members. Mercifully, with pets, there are no murky inheritance disputes or hassles with meddling relatives. When Hannah-Lee Lawrence’s cat,  Olivia, died earlier this year, she was overwhelmed with sadness. “I never reacted this strongly to the loss of a grandparent or other family member,” she said. “I remember remarking to my husband that this made me feel kind of guilty.” They buried Olivia in a sheep-skin lined cedar box under a pine grove. She feels the ceremony helped: “The effort that we made on her behalf represented her value to us.”

Donna Hopper concurred: “When Milhouse [her 8-year-old Jack Russell Terrier] died, it was sudden. My husband I don’t have children and don’t plan to, so losing that adorable little pooch was like losing my child.”

Brien Thurston is the Executive Director of Pet Loss Canada. He specializes in bereavement support. “I had a lady who simply sat with pictures of her two cats and wailed throughout the entire evening. With patience over several months, she started to agree that her pets had, indeed, gone,” he said. He recommends using the term “death” rather than “pass away” or “went to sleep” when referring to a deceased pet. “Facing the death and allowing for all the accompanying pain and sorrow can be very helpful,” said Thurston. As a last resort, he may ask them to write a letter to their dead pet. “This may sound very harsh but it can very much help the grieving experience.”

Angie Arora is a social worker who volunteers as a facilitator at one of the only pet loss support groups in the city, held monthly at Paws Way. Often, feelings of grief are compounded by other factors. People can feel a tremendous amount of guilt accompanying their decision to euthanize or not. If the pet’s death was accidental, they may feel they could have done more to protect it.

If children are involved, parents will often try to shield them by lying about the finality of the situation. Arora advises against that. “Grandparents and pets are usually the first experience with death that children are likely to face. If you don’t use the opportunity to talk about death, dying and loss, children tend to grow up grief-avoidant. If you use simple language, and are honest with children, they actually become a lot more resilient.”

When people see others grieving over the loss of a pet, the temptation is there to minimize or ignore the situation. The most vulnerable people are those that look to their animals for emotional support. When that pet dies, they can become extremely isolated. It’s important to continue to demonstrate concern. “Give people the space to openly express their grief without feeling judged,” said Arora.

Some may scoff at what they perceive as overkill – that it’s just an animal and no big deal. “The people who grieve do so out of love,” said Thurston. “There are some people who have never had a positive experience with any animal.  In the latter cases, these people find it hard to even empathize.”

While we can have conflicting emotions toward humans who have shuffled off this mortal coil, its hard to muster resentment toward a guileless animal. “We had a real relationship with that animal,” said Lawrence. “She communicated with us, and our daily routines were integrated with hers. When she wasn’t there any more, it felt like something had been ripped from our very essence.” Pet death can represent the loss of unconditional love – the most devastating of losses. “Those who don’t have canines may not understand,” said Hopper. “But there really is nothing in this world like the unconditional love and devotion of a dog.”

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Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @TorontoStandard and subscribe to our newsletter.

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