real life

The grief of losing a pet.

I saw a friend I haven’t seen for ages at a BBQ on the weekend and from the moment she walked in, I knew something had happened. She looked like she had a dark cloud over her head and as soon as she was near enough, I asked if she was OK. She burst into tears after blurting out that her beloved dog had died. He was 14 and had been with her since before she got married and had her two daughters. She was in shocking shape really. She’d had to make the decision to put him down about 3 weeks ago and was deep in grief.

Everyone remembers losing their first pet. Mine was a dog, an English Springer Spaniel who came along when I was a year old and was my best furry friend until he died when I was 10. Devastation. I know one woman who says that pets are a wonderful way for children to learn about the cycle of life which is true, certainly, but makes it no less crushing.

No matter how old you are, losing a pet is a tragic thing that often isn’t given enough respect or understanding in our society. Dr Katrina Warren knows a thing or two about this. She recently lost both her dog and her cat in a short period and was catapulted into an abyss which took a long time to recover from. I asked Katrina to write about her experience with pet loss, both personally and professionally as a vet.

Katrina has also set up a website, Our Wonderful Pets where pet owners can share their experiences, grief and honour and celebrate their pets.

Dr Katrina Warren writes:

Katrina, Toby & Milly

It’s been ten months since my beloved dog, Toby passed away and as each day, week and month passes, I really don’t find it getting much easier. I have had no choice but to adapt to life without him by my side but not a day goes by when I don’t long for his company or dream of giving him just one more walk or pat.

I always dreaded the time when I would have to say goodbye to Toby. He was my best friend, my loyal companion and with the exception of that last sad day, he made me smile every day of my life. That is a remarkable skill unique to our pets – no judgement, no bad moods – just always happy to see us. We had so much fun together – endless walks and games, travelling around the country, television and photo shoots and just hanging out. His happiness was infectious and no matter where we went – children’s hospitals, nursing homes or the local café, he was guaranteed to bring some joy.

It is more than his company that I miss – it’s what he symbolised in my life – a journey that we shared together from his naughty puppyhood, through many milestones of my life. He played a huge role in my career and won hearts across the country for his mischievous antics but he was also there for me through the difficult times- a great listener and a reliable, gentle shoulder to cry on. We had a mutual love and trust that is indescribable. With our pets, we can be our true selves.

Just six months prior to losing Toby, my beautiful cat Milly died in sudden, tragic circumstances and the pain of losing both of my companions so close has been like nothing else I have ever experienced.

I decided, as a legacy to Toby and Milly, to do something to help others in a similar situation. After a gruelling few months of researching and gathering information from experts in the field of pet loss and bereavement, was launched in October. The site provides support to grieving pet owners and focuses on acknowledging and respecting the deep love that people have for their pets.

We offer strategies for people with a critically ill pet, as well as those dealing with the expected or sudden death of a pet. I am encouraging people to post their own stories about their pets and interact with others on the site. There is also resource information as well as links to professional assistance for those who want additional support.

During my research, I spoke with Lifeline who acknowledged that emotional crisis related to pets is a significant factor in many of the calls to their 13 11 14 service. I’m honoured that Lifeline have since invited me to be an Ambassador for their wonderful organization to help raise awareness of pet related issues. I am hoping that we will be able to instigate a change in society’s attitude and understanding toward those grieving for the loss of a pet.

Toby the wonderdog

Those of you who remember us from Harry’s Practice would know that Toby, Milly and I were a team – inseparable buddies who shared everything. Like most pet owners, I sang silly songs to them, had cute nicknames for them, had photos of them in my wallet and included them in all family events – Christmas, birthdays etc. We had done countless photo shoots together, moved house together and both of them were by my side when I bought my newborn daughter, Charlotte, home from hospital. They were happy times.

Saying goodbye to and learning to live without Toby and Milly was hard enough, but explaining it to Charlotte was extremely difficult. Toby and Milly were the first things Charlotte smiled at, their names were the first words she uttered and they were beside her when she took her first steps. She did not know life without them and suddenly they were gone. This is huge for a little girl who bounded gleefully downstairs every morning to ‘make breakfast’ for her pets.

Children under seven do not understand the permanence of death but honesty is very important to minimise confusion at the time and later in life. It is important to speak plainly to children; use the correct grounded terms – dying, death, and dead. Using as much care and tact is important but ‘softening the blow’ by using euphemisms like ‘lost’, gone, gone to sleep actually creates more confusion for children and robs them of an opportunity for valuable learning.

I have clearly explained to Charlotte that Toby and Milly have died, that they can no longer move or breathe, that they can’t come home and that they now live in our hearts. Charlotte knows that I get upset sometimes because I miss them but in her little mind she thinks they may still return. She has devised many sweet plans to bring them back home such as “finding an airplane with a pussy cat seat and a doggy seat to fly them back from heaven”. How I wish.

One day Charlotte left eight shoes outside her bedroom door and she told me ‘four were for Milly and four were for Toby to help them find their way home because they must be lost” and just this morning she asked if we could “make sure that Santa sends Toby and Milly some presents so that they wont be lonely at Christmas”.
While her comments often bring me to tears, they are a constant reminder of the amazing impact that our pets have on children – they are their friends and confidantes, they teach them responsibility and how to care for a living being and they also teach valuable lessons about life; of which death is a significant part. Realising that the death of Toby and Milly would be the foundation on which all of Charlotte’s understanding of grief and loss would be built has been an enormous learning curve for me.

To help Charlotte understand, we have made a small ‘memorial garden’ to remember Toby and Milly and we also light a candle most nights in their memory – we talk about how we will always love them, even though they are no longer physically beside us.

After Toby died, hundreds of people reached out to me to offer their condolences and this level of support really did help get me through those first few months. People also wanted to share their own stories about pets they have loved and lost. Most of them felt that our society does not acknowledge pet loss and as a result felt very isolated by the experience. They grieved alone because their grief did not feel validated. They knew I would understand and empathise.

Toby with Katrina’s daughter Charlotte

Sometimes it can be difficult for people who have never owned a pet to understand how much our pets mean to us. Comments like ‘it’s just an animal’, ‘you’ll get over it’, or ‘go get another one’ are dismissive and hurtful. Our pets are irreplaceable because the relationships we have with them are unique and need to be understood as such.
A recent UK study found that one third of respondents said that losing their pet was as difficult as losing a significant family member. This doesn’t surprise me but what surprised me was the current lack of help and resources for people experiencing this kind of pain. The more I delved into the area of pet loss, the more I discovered that this was an overlooked, yet extremely important part of pet ownership.

Our relationship with our pets is very special – it’s such a personal bond. They teach us so much in their short lives and when their lives end, so many of us miss them deeply, honour them and celebrate all they brought to our and our families lives. One thing I know now from living without Toby and Milly by my side is that the love we have for our pets never has to end – they live on in our hearts and memories forever.

I hope you will visit if you or someone you care about is grieving the loss of a pet. So many people have told me how much comfort they have received from the site and I am happy knowing that the love Toby and Milly gave me throughout their lives continues through this site.

What ways have you commemorated a much loved pet?