What to do when the time comes to say goodbye

Losing such an important family member is never going to be easy and can leave us with a profound feeling of loss, sadness and heartbreak. Preparing for the end of a pet’s life may seem like a strange or even morbid thing to do, but knowing what to do when the time comes to say goodbye to your fur-baby may help you with your grieving process later down the line.

Nearing the end – anticipatory grief

If we’re lucky, our pets will live long and healthy lives but, sadly, the end must come eventually. If you have a terminally ill or elderly pet, the grief can start a long time before you actually lose them. This is known as anticipatory grief and can bring its own particular pain and heartache.

With anticipatory grief, you know that your pet is living their last months, weeks or even days. You may enter this phase of grief from the moment the vet gives your companion a terminal diagnosis, or it can creep up slowly, making its presence known the first time your senior cat stumbles on the stairs or when your elderly dog suddenly doesn’t acknowledge your arrival home. Anticipatory grief can be traumatic and exhausting because it’s often associated with an unknown time frame, as well as uncertainty and questions about the future. In fact, the biggest question on your mind may be, “How will I cope without them?”, and whilst we can’t give you a straight answer to this question, we can share some strategies for coping with this type of grief.

Sit with your feelings. You may feel as though you shouldn’t be grieving while your animal companion is still with you, but you have every right to feel angry, sad, scared or even to just accept that the end is coming. Your pet, someone you love, is dying – of course, you are grieving.

Plan ahead. Knowing that the end of your pet’s life is approaching presents the opportunity, however unwelcome, to plan in advance. Some people decide to spoil their pet by giving them their favourite treats or taking them to their favourite places. Others decide to make or purchase a physical memory of their pet, such as a print of their nose or paw, a framed photograph of you together, or one of our Treasured Paws memory boxes, so a part of them stays with you forever.

Talk to your vet. You may want to talk to your vet in advance about end-of-life decisions for your pet. As much as we would all like our pets to pass peacefully and painlessly in their sleep at such a great age, this isn’t always the case. Euthanasia, or putting your pet to sleep, is typically the most humane option to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering, but knowing when the time is right to say goodbye can be a major source of anxiety. If this is an issue that’s worrying you, do have a chat with your vet in advance. They are there to advocate for your pet and may have a clearer view of when euthanasia is an appropriate choice. Your vet can’t force you to take a particular course of action, but they can tell you when they think your pet has had enough, even if it comes at a time when you don’t want to see it.

Ask for help if you need it. Living with a terminally ill or elderly pet can be exhausting – you may be living around a regimen of medication or having to clean up accidents around the house. Your pet may be unsettled and vocal during the night, or you may have to attend regular veterinary appointments. Each circumstance can present its own challenges. So, if you need help, please reach out to your friends and family, if possible. They may be able to help on both a practical and emotional level.

Take lots of pictures and videos. Some people resist taking pictures of their elderly or ill pets because they don’t want their lasting memories to be of when their loved one was poorly. And this is completely understandable and okay! For other people though, pictures and videos can be a great source of comfort. As well as taking pictures of your pet doing what they love or with the people closest to them, you may one day take pleasure from photos that show a close up of your pet’s paws or their special markings or the shape of their nose. These little personal details can bring precious memories flooding back.

And lastly, take things one day at a time. As with a terminally ill person or someone who is very old, your pet will have good days and bad days. As their carer, you’ll have good days and bad days too. Anticipatory grief, like every other kind of grief, has no timeline, no rules and looks different for every person. But it is so very normal, an integral part of loving a pet and not wanting to face the future without them.

Life after your fur baby

Losing a much-loved friend can feel like one of the hardest things to go through and coping with the pain of grief can often feel overwhelming. You may experience many difficult and confusing emotions, from shock and disbelief, to guilt and even anger. These feelings may be very unwelcome, but they are normal and are a testimony to the special bond between people and their pets. It’s important to give yourself as much time as you need to grieve. You’ve lost someone very special – missing them is natural.

The death of a pet is very upsetting. Take time to talk things over with supportive friends and family members. Your emotions are not your enemy. Try not to feel ashamed or embarrassed of them. Tears are part of the healing process for a lot of people, although it’s perfectly normal to express your emotions in other ways too.

Sometimes it helps to share your feelings with those who have experienced pet loss too. The organisations below offer helpful support, and some have specially trained bereavement support teams to listen and offer comfort.

  • The Blue Cross. The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) mission is to provide free and confidential emotional support.
    Tel: 0800 096 6606 | Web: bluecross.org.uk | Email: pbssmail@bluecross.org.uk
  • RSCPA. The world’s oldest and largest animal welfare charity, focusing on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming or releasing animal. Tel: 0300 123 0346 | Web: www.rspca.org.uk
  • Cinnamon Trust. The National Charity for the elderly, the terminally ill and their pets. Tel: 01736 757900 | Web: cinnamon.org.uk
  • Cats’ Protection. Cats’ Protection offer support and advice to those facing, or have faced, the heartbreak of saying goodbye to their cat. They also offer a helpful step-by-step guide to euthanasia. Tel: 03000 12 12 12 | Web: www.cats.org.uk
  • Samaritans provide confidential non- judgemental support 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress. Tel: 116 123 | Web: www.samaritans.org | Email: jo@samaritans.org
  • CPC Online Tributes. Many of our customers tell us that reading pet tributes from others going through pet loss offers some comfort. Web: cpccares.com/tributes | Facebook: www.facebook.com/cpccares | Instagram: www.instagram.com/cpc.cares
  • Professional Medical Help. If your grief feels overwhelming, or you have prolonged symptoms of distress, your own family doctor can help. Do not be afraid to say you have suffered an animal bereavement, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Saying your final goodbyes

After your pet has passed away, you may want to hold a funeral or memorial for them. This could involve burying something like their collar, scattering their ashes, saying a prayer, or simply taking some time to remember them.

When a person dies, ceremonies such as burials or cremations may provide closure and can help with the grieving process. Families come together to say goodbye and to grieve. It also provides an opportunity to offer or receive support. It is becoming more widely appreciated that pet loss can affect people in the same way. Services offering the same compassion and understanding to pet owners as those offered by funeral directors are becoming more and more accessible. At CPC, for example, owners have told us that choosing to attend their pet’s cremation helped them come to terms with their loss. Whatever you choose to do will be the right thing to do.

Once you’ve given yourself time to grieve, you might start feeling like you want to celebrate your pet’s life and focus on the happy memories of your time together. There are lots of ways you can remember your special friend. Photos and keepsakes can be really lovely and can make you feel like your pet is still close. Or you might like to plant something new in their favourite garden spot.

Final thoughts

Although it may not seem like it when your grief is at its most raw, most pet parents agree that it is better to have loved and lost a companion than never to have known how wonderful the human-animal bond can be. It is important to accept that how you feel is totally natural. Grief is a unique experience, as no two people grieve in the same way, just as no two pet-owner relationships are the same. You will always miss your departed pet, but the raw emotions you feel today will eventually subside, leaving happy memories of a wonderful life together.

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