When Your Fur Person Dies
Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW
We talk about why pet loss is so significant and why it’s important to talk about it as well as HOW to talk about it. If you are a single pet parent and you lose your pet, it is the same as losing a spouse. Jill talks about things we can do when we’re in the grief process, or anticipating death. She talks about how to handle when others don’t recognize the significance of the loss;the symptoms of grief; how to talk with kids about death; how to prepare them, and involve them.
- If you are a single parent and you lose your pet, it is the same as losing a spouse.
- Your pet is a part of your family, and your pet is related to as a member of the family. If someone is a single pet parent, and that’s the only primary relationship they have in their house, that’s as big a loss as losing a spouse. And there’s research that supports that.
- For the person losing the pet, they go through all of the anticipatory grief if they realize the pet is sick, which is something that happens with a lot of pet death. They get older; they get sick, or even when they’re young and they’re diagnosed with something. You go through the same process, as you do with a human person in your house. The date of the diagnosis is devastating. The deciding what to do for treatment or not to treat is devastating. The taking care of them toward the end is something you do out of love and devotion and dedication. The being with them and the dying process is something you do just as you do with a person. There’s a significant difference in that with pets, we can choose euthanasia, if it’s needed, or if it’s the kind thing to do. With humans, there’s no ability to choose one’s death, except for in a handful of states. And that’s still very controversial, but it’s not controversial for pets. Then the afterward– you are literally leaving (if you’ve gone to euthanasia) the vet’s office with empty arms. It is just as devastating as leaving a funeral and walking away from the casket going into the ground. It needs to have a memorial. It needs to have a process. There needs to be grace because you’ve just lost an integral part of your family.
- We get unconditional love from our animals. This is the one place of our life where our dogs don’t get resentful. They don’t say unkind things. They don’t shut us out. It’s pure, unconditional love.
- I think it’s that unconditional love that we get. And it is so pure. And I think so many people have such giving loving hearts that we get so much out of caring for our pets, and the relationship that we have with our pets and to lose that. It’s huge. It’s a huge loss. But I don’t think that we talk about it enough and so people don’t understand why it can be so hard, or other people don’t understand why we’re having such a hard time.
- We know when you lose a spouse, for instance, and you walk in the door to the house at the end of the day, and they’re not there, it’s a huge loss. Spouses don’t usually meet us at the door with their tails wagging and their tongues out and jumping on us and wanting to kiss us all over. It’d be nice if they wanted to kiss all over us. It’s the cat who insists on sitting on our laptops as we’re working at home right now. They integrate themselves into all aspects of our lives. They sleep with us. I haven’t had a moment in a bathroom in years without a dog, either in the bathroom or trying to be in the bathroom and sometimes there’s three of them.
- Pets give us those eyes we can look into. And those ears we can stroke. children when they have a pet, it becomes a primary attachment. Similar to a parent, sorry, parents true. And they can tell their pet anything. So you’ve got that girl in fifth grade and she’s got mean girl stuff going on; she goes home and she cries to her cat, or her guinea pig, or her hamster. Maybe her Snake, I’m not super fun to snakes, but I’ll go with snakes. You know, that’s, that’s the attachment. And that’s who looks at them.
- How incredibly loud the absence of a pet can be. Whether it’s a cat, who when you come home, meows, or if you have hardwood floors, the sound of nails, clicking on the floor. All of those little things that we don’t even think about. Little rituals– when you go to the bathroom, or when you go to feed them. The absence is incredibly loud.
- And if they’ve been sick, and you’ve been caretaking them. All of those pieces go away too. So you lose that caregiver role, and you lose that additional relationship that builds over the caregiving. As you know, I just lost my Adele. We have in our house poodles because we have oodles of poodles, and if if you read my kid’s books, you will see there’s a poodle on every page. Poodles go to funerals in the books that I write, as they should. They to doctor visits. So we had Adele and Walter, who is blind, and we’ve just added Gracie who’s 20 and was living on the streets and weighs about four pounds, and we have Fred who’s all the trouble and likes to take himself swimming. And then we have an extra one who is not a poodle. Adele was a rescue. We got her when she was maybe 10. And she chose us at at the pound, she had been a captive breeder. She could never walk normally because she’d been locked in the cage for so long, so her elbows and her knees never bent. until just before her death, she could never bend them. Because they were so stiff Shin PTSD, we could see from her dreams when we first got her. But she shows us and she was ours and she became a primary For me, she was my dog. And as she got sicker in the last six months or so, she needed to be fed. I had to take her out and hold her while she went to the bathroom. I did all the things that you do for a human, which I’ve done with spouses who have died. And now coming home, it’s only been a few weeks. I come in and I’ve just stopped really searching for her to make sure she’s okay, and not splattered on the floor somewhere. And I’ve just started to learn to sleep and not look for her in the covers to make sure she’s okay. Because she had congestive heart failure. So it was hard, and she was hard to move. So positioning was important for her. All those roles went away when she died. And that’s a big loss. That’s something that happens with pet people when they lose a pet. People who are not pet owners say, “Well, isn’t that a relief?” Just like they say when someone human has died, “Oh, look, it’s a relief. They’re not in pain. They’re not.” Oh, no! It’s not a relief, because I’d really rather have her back here. Yeah, yeah, but I don’t want her back in the condition she was in.
- It becomes our responsibility to honor and to let go. We want that attachment. We want that connection. And I think that can be really hard. I really believe that the ultimate form of love is really putting another animal and other human’s needs before own, even if it means that we’re going to feel grief and sadness and loss. We want the people that we love, the animals that we love to have the best in life even if that means it’s time to go.
- What are some things that people can do when they’re in that grief process? Oftentimes we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to talk about it. I think that people feel that it’s different than losing a person, so we need to do the same things that we do when we lose a human that we love.
- We need to do anticipatory loss with them. As they are dying, getting sick and dying, we need to be preparing to say goodbye. We need to tell them the things we want to tell them. Love on them the way we want them to go out of this world, so that as they’re leaving this world, they are still feeling those hands and hearing those sounds in their ears. When we are losing a pet who’s had connections with other people, and because our dogs go to the office, they had lots of connections. I put it out publicly, even though it was a private loss. And we had some people come by who needed to come and snuggle with each of those critters before they died. I’d say goodbye, cry for them and do some sort of public memorials. And then when we are grieving ourselves, we need to honor that. And if other people are not, we need to call them on it. If you lost your spouse and someone’s acting like you should be having just any other day, you’re allowed to throw that grief card down and say, I’m grieving. Back it up, I need you to be more understanding. The same goes with pet loss. When you’ve lost a pet, you’ve lost a member of your family. And that needs to be honored. Yeah. I’ve had clients who’ve had ministers come out and actually do funerals in backyards for them. When you have a pet who’s like a cat about town, (my sister had one), or now that we’re in COVID, they may be the primary visitor for a couple of your neighbors who live alone. If that cat dies, that entire community needs to know that the cat is gone and needs to be able to come together and grieve together, because they all have a different relationship. But they all had a relationship with that pet. Just like a person.
- When you are the one who’s had the pet loss, and you’ve got people around you who are not pet people, that’s sometimes an issue because they tend to minimize it. They don’t understand the depth of the loss, and they may expect you to continue to do just the way you were doing yesterday. And you have sort of an auspicious task of explaining to some extent, just how big a loss it is, with what energy you might have to give to them because when we’re grieving, we lose energy. And we lose the ability sometimes to be kind to people because we’re putting our energy into just getting through the day, and not crying over our little friend who didn’t wake up with us that morning. Because when you lose a pet, you do the same thing. You wake up in the morning and realize all over again that they’re dead for probably a month is normal for humans and pets. But you also are faced with having to tell someone this was a major for you, and this really counted. If you can’t be kind, I need you to back it up or take your requests somewhere else because I don’t have that much left in me right now. And you also need to monitor yourself because you may think you’ve got all the energy you normally do. And you don’t.
- People need to have ceremonies and rituals. I’m a big believer in those. I’m not someone who goes along with humans saying that they shouldn’t have funerals. And I don’t think we should say that about pets either. We’re going to be getting Adele’s ashes back this week, and we’ll be having a little service for her. And then her ashes will go with the ashes of the rest of them. We have a spot where we keep everybody together. And that’s our Memorial spot for the folks in our family who have died four footed at two footed. I do advocate talking about the moments when you’re missing your pets. If I wake up and I’m having that moment, I will say to whoever’s around, “I just can’t believe she’s not here right now. This has really been a hard morning right now. And I need to take a little bit of a break.” And when I knew that We were putting her to sleep. I backed up my schedule some, so that I didn’t have to start the week all over again at the same level of exuberance I normally do. I’m usually very high energy, and I do a lot throughout the week. The two weeks after her death I backed up a lot, because I needed that time.
- How do you manage grief? I use a lot of coping skills. I have another doodle on my lap. I’m stroking. I’m feeling the heartbeat. I’ve got a cold drink in my hand, which changes the way your hypothalamus is functioning. I can press hard on my leg which also activates a different part of your brain. I do all the things that you do for coping, to try and bring yourself out of the deep emotion and to stay focused and present. So kind of the same things you do with panic attack you breathe deep, breathe slow, you bring yourself totally so you are in control of your brain, and it’s not in control of you.
- What might it look like if someone is grieving the loss of a pet, but they just may not be aware of it. My guess is that this the signs are similar or the same to when we lose somebody that we love when we’re in grief and we don’t even realize it. If I’m seeing someone who’s not recognizing that they’re grieving their pet, I will point out some of the somatic signs that they are the not sleeping well, craving carbohydrates, confused, short tempered, lack of concentration, fatigue. It’s not being tired when you are grieving, you are fatigued, you just want that blanket fort and a blankie and a pillow to lay across, and probably a Hershey bar or something right? Or it’s hot now. So maybe an ice cream bar. That would be where I would go Ben and Jerry’s, right. So I bring those to the forefront and say now let’s talk about how that relates to grief. Because what I’m seeing and hearing, is you saying that you’re not feeling yourself. What I’m seeing is you’re feeling grief. And I know you just lost your beloved friend. Can you tell me how these things might tie together? And I leave that sort of as an open ended and let them see if they can tie it together. Typically they do, and then they say I Didn’t want it. I didn’t want to know it hurt that much. Yeah, I didn’t want it to have to hurt. I’m feeling guilty because I made the decision. I’m feeling guilty because I made the decision. And then my vet wouldn’t let me go in with my pet. Which is something if you’ve got a sick pet, my strongest suggestion is that you check with your vet to make sure they will allow you to, if you have to make that decision, and if they don’t find someone who will. Because that’s an important part of saying goodbye. Being able to be the last loving arms that your pet is in.
- When somebody’s pet dies in our family we send flowers and cards because that pet is a part of the family. When I know that there’s a child losing a pet, I will try to get a small stuffed animal sent to them so they have something to cuddle up with. Immediately after, I like I get stuffed animals for kids going to funerals, because they need something soft to hold on to and focus on. And now there’s these wonderful ones that heat up and they smell they have like menthol, and they’re just so snuggly and so soft. And I like those for that reason. I think we need to really be aware that this is a loss. And I think for those who are having the loss or have had a loss, they need to be able to let themselves grieve in the way that they need to. If it brings up past losses, they need to also let those come forward. Frequently we adopt just one pet, but lots of us take sibling sets, just like human adoption. I’ve had clients who’ve had siblings and they lose one and then they know that the other one is at some point also going to die. So they’re kind of grieving, but they’re also holding out hope that the other one is going to last a little longer. And then whammo, they’ve got a double loss, so then we prepare for things as we would for any other kind of loss–the anniversaries and the holidays. If you’re a single pet parent, your pets are part of your holidays. I like to have people put, an ornament on the tree for someone who’s died if they do Christmas, or a special candle on the menorah, if it’s Hanukkah, or whatever holiday it is for you honor those who have died. The church I attend has All Souls Day. I think pets belong up there just along with people. Because that’s a significant loss in that year and it needs to be marked and talked about. All the rituals are important; all the talking, all the acknowledging, and then all the happy remembering. We don’t want to sit just in the grief; we want to also move into it. We were very lucky to have them in our lives. We need to let go of any guilt or holding on for whatever decisions we made. Because certainly making decisions about a pet who is sick is different than humans—especially for older pets.
WAYS TO COMMUNICATE YOUR LOSS; YOUR NEEDS; YOUR CONDOLENCES
- If you can’t be kind, I need you to back it up or take your requests somewhere else because I don’t have that much left in me right now. And you also need to monitor yourself because you may think you’ve got all the energy you normally do. And you don’t.
- What are some specific things that people can say when they don’t know what to say? They’re signing a card. They’re on social media. Can you give people some phrases,
- when I’m sending a condolence card, I always reference something– a memory of that person or that pet. So for Waldo, you know, I’m so missing his little face, and it was just amazing to see how much he loved you. He was so blessed to be in your family and to be that loved. That’s an important message to hear when you are missing someone And you may be feeling guilty. I gave my creature the best home possible. I will say things like– some people may not understand, but I know you lost a family member. I can only imagine how much it hurts to wake up in the morning with them not there. Just know that I’m thinking about you. I wish I could come over and be with you. Freaking COVID! just know that I’m there with you. Yeah, if you want to call, or if it’s a good time, I will call but we’re all missing your friend.
Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW is a dynamic and engaging speaker who loves teaching both professional and community groups about dementia, death and dying, and grief and loss. She is the CEO of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, California, where she is also a clinical therapist. She is a certified Grief Recovery Facilitator after spending more than a decade with hospice as a medical social worker and as a director of social workers, chaplains and grief staff. She holds a BA from UC Riverside and her MSW from the University of South Florida. Jill has authored three children’s grief books and an adult grief workbook with more in process, and created Your Path Through Grief, a year-long, comprehensive grief support program which includes resources for therapists.
Patricia Young hosts the podcast Unapologetically Sensitive, and works with Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) helping them to understand their HSP traits, and turning their perceived shortcomings into superpowers. Patricia is passionate about providing education to help HSPs and non-HSPs understand and truly appreciate the amazing gifts they have to offer. Patricia works globally online with HSPs providing coaching. Patricia also facilitates online groups for HSPs that focus on building community and developing skills (identifying your superpowers, boundaries, perfectionism, dealing with conflict, mindfulness, embracing emotions, creating a lifestyle that supports the HSP, communication and more).
My pet is sick: It’s time to say goodbye by Jill Johnson-Young
Someone is sick: How do I say Goodbye? By Jill Johnson-Young
Someone I love just died: What happens now? By Jill Johnson-Young
Your own path through grief; A workbook for your journey to recovery by Jill Johnson-Young
Amazon link for Jill’s books– https://www.amazon.com/Jill-A.-Johnson-Young-LCSW/e/B07NPT5NYQ%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
Episode 47: 20+ ways to manage change and loss through the holidays with Jill Johnson-Young https://unapologeticallysensitive.com/episode-47/
Pet Loss and Grief Resources–https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/pet-loss-and-grief-resources
Pet Loss at Home—https://petlossathome.com/about/
Pet Loss Support Hotline—https://vet.tufts.edu/petloss/pet-loss-support-hotline-support-group-link/
Facebook group Unapologetically Sensitive– https://www.facebook.com/groups/2099705880047619/
Music– Gravel Dance by Andy Robinson www.andyrobinson.com