Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The out-of-order death of a pet poses brutal challenges

It’s not uncommon for me to be brought on board by a family to tend to their pet who has received a life-limiting illness or is experiencing age-related decline (in many cases, both)—and for them to have much-younger pets as well. The former tends to be the focus of my care and tending of course, but as any family in this situation will tell you, the other pets become just as much a part of the equation because they’re as much a part of the family unit. 

It’s no secret that the younger pets lend a sense of lightness to the overall situation and in themselves offer some respite from the day-to-day changes, decision making, monitoring of a pet who is in delicate health. In fact, I often remind my families that though the pangs of guilt that they experience from having fun with their younger pets and tending to their emotional and mental needs are completely normal, resisting that and setting time aside for play and all else can actually make them a better caregiver to that pet whose needs are increasing and abilities changing. 

I’ll admit, those interactions are good for me, too. 

I don’t think it’s lost on anyone whose pet has died after a long period of decline that the younger pet is a font of respite from the grief hangover that is experienced. The absence of medication regimens, tending to hygiene, the worry of getting home in a timely fashion to get an aging dog out to potty—yes, that is a welcome thing. The more carefree aspects of focusing on sharing life with a younger, healthier pet that we have a bonded relationship are definitely something to look forward to. 

And for some families, in the midst of caring for the pet in delicate health and all that is associated with it, their world crashes in. 

The usually robust, younger pet seems a little off. Or very much so. And then it’s revealed that they are in fact quite sick and a bigger conversation—one that blindsides—needs to be had. Perhaps, even, it’s an accident, or the negligence of another party that causes the unfolding of events. And then the beloved pet that was counted on to be a part of the family for years is then gone, not from memory, but sight and earshot and so many memories that will never be. 

The out-of-order death of a pet is especially brutal, just as it is with a human counterpart. Though I think in many ways, maybe more so: the representation that pets hold in one’s daily life can be much more tethered than other relationships. We often spend far more time thinking about and tending to the care of pets more than we might our human loved ones because pets inherently depend on us. And walking through the grief of a pet that died suddenly and far too soon all whilst navigating another pet’s terminal illness possesses a layer of difficulty that is unmatched. 

And so, that reliable buffer of being able to depend on the younger pet vaporizes. We’re left with emotions and grief that we didn’t expect to grapple with, and yes, confusing degrees of guilt often bubble up. It can be especially complicated having this unfold—contending with the usually stuffed-down anticipatory grief associated with knowing that we’ll be saying goodbye to one pet, and then of course living in a culture where the all-too-common accompaniment of disenfranchised grief is already so prevalent. The social interactions in our personal and professional lives can ride roughshod over us: the questions, comments and avoidance from others, well-meaning and not; the tone-deafness of the trauma that is so prevalent with these losses. This is of course married with, ‘how do I navigate losing the pet who is expected to die without my younger pet softening the blow?’.

So for those who are navigating the shock of an unexpected and life-limiting diagnosis of a younger pet, the sudden loss of another family pet sooner than you expected, grappling with how to grieve the loss of a pet that you at first blush thought would carry you through the expected death of another—you are seen, heard, acknowledged. This kind of loss and grief is very real and challenging to wade through. Know who the trusted parties are that you can confide in, and seek them out. And don’t apologize for taking custody of any kind of grief sooner than you might have expected. The out-of-order grief after a pet dies is as uncomfortable, confusing and gutting as any that is experienced. 

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.