Monday, December 28, 2020

Tack-sharp exchanges between caregivers, loved ones during a pet’s fourth life stage beg for understanding

I often come into a family’s life at a time that’s fraught with fear of the known and unknown, sadness, murky territory.

Did I mention tension? 

That kind of strain is so pervasive in the area of the fourth life stage and end-of-life. And when it involves our pets, it can be very complicated. No matter if there is one human involved, or multiple members of a family, the tension is expected. It’s an understandably scary time. In my years working with families finding themselves walking in what some have initially characterized as quicksand, bearing witness to words being tossed like the harshest of barbs is par for the course. 

Recalling a stern warning from the instructor at the helm of the professional end-of-life doula training that I took part in years ago, I thought, ah... I recognize that.

“You should not be tolerating verbal abuse in the course of your work...” 

And the instructor is absolutely correct: as a professional, as a human being, I need not indulge other’s inclinations to dole out verbal abuse toward me. That kind of thing is never okay. And it’s not accepted. But—yes, though it can be seen more of an excuse, rather than an explanation in some cases—I feel it’s important to stop and look at an exchange that falls short of what someone might normally expect from themselves with some context. And without ego. 

Let’s face it, none of us are perfect. And when we’re in a stressful situation, especially navigating a pet’s fourth life stage, we need to cut ourselves and each other a little slack. There are going to be barbs carelessly tossed about in a tense moment, whether that’s toward a loved one or even a member of the professional team on board to support us.

And so, I take the words from one wise human who learned them from another before her as an offering: the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “ helps to be a little deaf”. Though she noted this sage advice in the context of marriage, I find it very useful in my work with families who are navigating their pet’s twilight or fourth life stage. The families find it useful, too. 

There are a few things that I keep in mind as I walk with a family during their pet’s fourth life stage. They really help me maintain perspective and guide these families. There’s a fair amount of fear about the known and the unknown for what lies ahead, not to mention anticipatory grief. The differing vantage points and relationships with each loved one, including the pet, have weight—no one wants to see a loved one struggle or suffer. Past experiences in coping with diagnoses, doctors, death and grief are unquestionably influential. Caregiver burden can most definitely allow those sharp words to escape more easily. 

No one is immune to these emotions and biases.

The most crucial thing I keep at the forefront as I’m encountering a stressful exchange between loved ones, I remember that everyone involved cares very much about the pet at the center, and wants the best for them. That’s something that I wholeheartedly remind families when they feel the sting of wayward comments from members of their tribe. In most cases, it’s better to give that person a pass, let the comments slide and offer some grace and tenderness. (And as a second strategy, use some thoughtful, genuine curiosity. That other person likely needs to be seen, heard and acknowledged.) After all, none of us are immune to needing a healthy dose of that in the midst of an important time of life like our pet’s fourth life stage.

Lorrie Shaw has trained as an end-of life doula and earned her certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning in 2017, which qualifies her to work in a professional capacity with families coping with the emotional toil with pets in end-of-life, as well as individuals seeking professional Companioning in their journey through pet loss and grief. She's a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, National End-of Life Alliance and Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. She can be found at, and tweets at @psa2.