What happens when a beloved pet dies: Grief can be deep, memories often sweet

Courtesy of KnoxNews.com | By Amy McRary |Originally Published 04.15.2018 | Posted 05.04.2018

Why does the UT Veterinary Medical Center offer a pet loss support group?
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Photo by Erin Chapin

Jennifer Burke grieved six months after Hippie Chick died of heart failure.

Burke was home with Hippie Chick the morning the plump orange tabby died. They’d been best friends since she adopted this older cat seven years earlier. Nicknamed “H.C.,” the cat was the first pet Burke owned as an adult.

“She had such personality and sass. I wish I had had her all her life,” she said.

Hippie’s March 2017 death wasn’t unexpected. The 18-year-old feline suffered from a rare arrhythmia that’s more common in dogs. That didn’t lessen Burke’s grief.

Hippie’s March 2017 death wasn’t unexpected. The 18-year-old feline suffered from a rare arrhythmia that’s more common in dogs. That didn’t lessen Burke’s grief.

“You tell yourself, this is going to happen. But when it happens, it’s just final. I would say losing her was just like losing a person. The feeling was the same. To say I don’t grieve for her still would be wrong,” Burke said.

Manifold reassures them, “You aren’t going crazy. You are allowed to feel this way.”

Often people confide, with mixed grief and guilt, that their animal’s death hit them harder than that of a parent, spouse or grandparent. They see their pet as a dependent family member that gave them unconditional love.

“The head says this was a dog, cat, horse, bird, goat, pig. But in our heart this is our kid, family member, best friend,” said Manifold, who counsels owners and leads the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine pet loss support group. (Information about UT veterinary grief services is at http://vetsocialwork.utk.edu/grief-and-bereavement).

More pets, more joy, more grief

While more people own pets, grieving an animal’s death isn’t always understood or supported. Manifold calls it “disenfranchised grief.” Owners may feel guilty about being sad; people around them may not understand their sorrow or will discount its depth.

“People don’t necessarily mean harm when they say things like ‘you can have another one’ or ‘It’s just a dog, just a horse, just a fish,’” Manifold said. “But to the pet owner, that’s their baby or a member of the family. Each relationship is unique and that animal’s not replaceable.”

A person may grieve differently for different pets. Sometimes it’s comforting knowing a pet lived a long life. An animal’s unexpected death may add guilt and hurt more. Owners can struggle over whether – or when – to euthanize an ailing pet.

His name was Jackson

Fifteen years as a veterinarian hasn’t made it easier for Cedar Bluff Animal Clinic’s Dr. Leigh Whitmire to euthanize clients’ pets.

“If anything, it has gotten harder. You know you are relieving the pet of its suffering but you’re thinking about that family’s loss and their experience of having that loss,” she said.

Since January Whitmire has been coping with her own grief over her dog Jackson’s death. Caring for other animals at work helps. She also shares her story, hoping to help other pet owners know “their feelings are valid and real and normal.”

Jackson was a Catahoula mix. He lived with Whitmire and her husband, Jamie Whitmire, for a decade she said “flew by.” He’d been a rescue. To her, the 55-pound pup was “a once-in-a-lifetime dog.”

Diagnosed with chronic kidney failure in April 2016, Jackson coped well until fall 2017. UT veterinarians put a feeding tube in his neck; he needed lots of home care. By January, he was faltering, and the Whitmires knew it was time to say goodbye. A veterinary colleague came to their home to euthanize Jackson. It was a Saturday; Jamie and Leigh Whitmire read their 10-year-old dog “love letters” they’d written.

Whitmire initially was skeptical when she read about the letter writing idea. But reading her feelings aloud as Jackson rested on his bed one last time proved “extremely therapeutic and provided a lot of closure,” she said.

Reading books on pet loss also helped. Among the books Whitmire recommends are “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet” by Moira Anderson Allen and “Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups” by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez. She also found solace at the UT pet grief support group.

A tsunami of sorrow

Jackson wasn’t Whitmire’s first pet to die. She grieved the deaths of her two cats years before. But somehow his death hit harder.

“I think maybe because Jackson and I had this amazing bond. He was always by my side,” she said.

“Grief comes and goes in waves,” Manifold said. “Sometimes it’s gentle and you barely feel it. Some days it’s like a tsunami and you barely keep your head above water. Ten years later you may have a tsunami moment. There’s not an end point. You can’t kill love and you can’t kill memories.”

Goofy Mister dog

Mister looked as fierce as he was gentle and was as smart as he was goofy.

When 8-year-old Mister began lapping lots of water, Erin and daughter Emily quickly took the always healthy dog to the veterinarian. That was Oct. 3, 2017. Test results two days later shockingly showed Mister had lymphoma.

By then, he was getting sicker and weaker.

“It was a free fall,” Erin Chapin said.

 She coaxed him to eat soft food and chicken and rice. “I was actually putting food in his mouth. He wanted to eat but he couldn’t. He was shutting down.”

She slept in the living room with him. “You’d hear him and he’s in pain. You get up and say, ‘What can I do for you? Do you need something to drink? Let me get that food again and we’ll try it. Do you think you can go outside?’ You try anything.”

On Oct. 9 Emily and her brother Michael said goodbye to their dog. Rodney and Erin drove Mister one last time to Dr. Wesley Keele.

“We said goodbye to him and the vet came in and he said goodbye and told him what a good dog he had been,” Erin Chapin recalled. Keele euthanized Mister as the couple petted the dog. “I was looking in his eyes and you just saw him go,” she said.

A gnawed blanket and a smile

“I just felt it was a little morbid, a little weird to keep it out,” she said.

Their other Doberman, Roxy, acted differently for about a week. Now, she’ll rest on blankets Mister gnawed holes in.

“I think of him every time I see those holes and I just smile,” Erin Chapin said.

She can’t tell Mister’s story without crying, but family memories are mostly happy ones. “We laugh and talk about what a goofball he was but also how sweet he was. When it happens so fast, you feel like you had time taken away from you, time taken away from them.”

A collar, a necklace and memories 

After Mister died, Rodney Chapin hung his dog’s collar around his truck’s gear shift.

A second collar hangs on a hook by the Chapins’ back door. The door has bite marks from where Mister tried to open it. A tin holding his ashes sits on a table near the fireplace. Emily’s drawing of her happy dog on that first, fateful vet trip stands next to the tin.

Jennifer Burke placed the wooden box of Hippie Chick’s ashes in a curio cabinet, resting the cat’s collar tag atop the box. She displays figurines that remind her of Hippie and photos of her friend. “I never plan to remove them.”

Whitmire also created a small memorial to Jackson. His photo, favorite stuffed lamb toy and a bandanna he wore are arranged near the container of his ashes.

“That has really helped me a lot,” she said. “But I know for some people it’s just too hard to have that memorial. They can’t bear have that.”

Whitmire and Burke wear jewelry memorializing their pets. The beads of Whitmire’s necklace spell Jackson in Morse code. Burke’s bracelet is set with a cast of Hippie’s right back paw.

Some owners remember pets with memorial services. Often they share memories and photos on social media, inviting condolences. Some donate money or items to a rescue or shelter in their pet’s memory. Planting a tree or a garden around a pet’s grave are other ways to remember, said Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice veterinarian Dr. Allie Prokop.

“I think there’s something to be said for having a memorial ritual, and it doesn’t matter what that is,” Manifold said. “There’s a reason we do this — to help our brains and our hearts to go, ‘OK, this is how it was and this is how it is now.’“

Another pet?

Often before they find a spot for one pet’s ashes, people are asked if they’ll get another. For some the answer may always be no. Others, “after their hearts heal, open up to another animal,” Prokop said.

Roxy’s likely to remain the Chapins’ only dog; they recently adopted an orange cat named Moses. The Whitmires already owned their dog, Charlie; Leigh Whitmire believes they’ll add another pet at some point.

Burke hesitated to get another cat. Then in January she adopted two young felines from Happy Paws Kitten Rescue. Frannie and Archie helped heal her heart. They don’t replace Hippie Chick.

“You don’t replace a pet; you never do that,” she said. “But you learn there are so many other animals that need love and affection. Why deny them that love you have because you are selfish and you wish you had your pet back? It’s that kind of circle. And one day you wake up and you’re not as sad… But it takes time.”

1 Comment

  1. You never “get over it”. The pet held a special place in your heart and that space will never be filled. New pets will carve out their own space, but they never replace the previous one, nor should they be expected to. Today I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of a beloved dog I lost 20 years ago. I drove down the road sobbing. I have lost many, many pets, dogs and cats since I lost him. I have a house full now. My heart hurt as if he crossed yesterday.

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