Sunday, February 2, 2020

How pet care professionals handle even small details after a pet’s death matters to grieving families

I give my families whose pets have died—and my serving the family in the capacity of acting as caregiver to their pet is no longer needed—agency on how and when their keys are returned to them. Though I have a contract with my families that details the terms of my having possession of their house keys and their return, I recognized long ago that the act of my handing their keys to them is surprisingly difficult for many of them.

This is especially true when a pet has navigated the journey of age-related decline or a life-limiting illness and I’ve walked alongside them and their family to the end. And so, I proceed thoughtfully. Essentially, I’m asking permission to engage in this interaction, though it involves a seemingly benign detail, am giving it what I’ve come to know is the thoughtfulness that it deserves.

After all, I’ve forged a bond with the pet and the family through our time together, and understand the gravity of what has been experienced. 

Below is an excerpt of an email recently sent to one of my families: 

This transition can be very difficult for my families with pets that have navigated fragile health and end-of-life, so whichever option is comfortable for you both, I’m happy to make happen—whenever you are ready, and only you know what that looks like. That said, I’d love to see you all if you’re up for it. 

Receiving their house keys back can be an emotionally-charged experience for a family, greeting me with their tear-filled eyes, sometimes sobs. It’s not uncommon for me to hear when they see me to blurt out, Nope, nope, I’m not ready. Please hang on to those keys a little longer. And specializing in animal palliative, hospice and end-of-life care support, I understand. 

Keys are powerful objects in themselves. They convey a sense of trust, of being allowed to have access to very personal spaces. They have an all-too-familiar sound when they’re in your hands. They have a distinct feel; their weight, their shape. Returning them to a family whose pet has died conveys a finality to them that is punctuated in that moment. Another opportunity to lean into the experience grief and mourning. 

How one feels about this transition is often tied to their overall grief journey. And in keeping with what is known about grief and mourning, it’s important to ensure that the grieving person’s lead is followed. And so I do. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, holds a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning, and is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She's also a member of International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member), National End of Life Doula Alliance and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.