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Pets: How To Deal With Their Deaths? — Part 2 of 3

January 6th, 2013 by Alison · 6 Comments · sustainability

In December I started a three-post series on pets. Given that this blog is about a joyful yet sustainable quality of life (living large with a small footprint, one reader has called it) — do pets improve our quality of life? Should I end my household’s petlessness?

Today I’m looking at what losing a pet to death is like. Is the depth of grief and pain when pets die any different from when people we love die? Is all of it — the loss, the pain and grief, not to mention the vet bills — truly worth it? Do we learn anything from our animals? Can our creatures change us for the better?

Bev, pictured, was a sled dog that Colleen and Thad adopted in Alaska when attending the Iditarod years ago, and brought home here to

Bev theh sled dog in the snow

Bev the late sled dog

Portland. Her original owner had put Bev’s whole team up for adoption, probably because he could no longer afford to feed them. “Bev was our very first sled dog – we now have 8 sled dogs and three pet dogs,” Colleen writes. “Bev was gorgeous and joyous, loved to work, loved to pull. She’d wake up in the morning and yip and prance with joy over nothing, over just being alive.”  (We’ll return to Bev in a moment.)

Dana, a male ICU nurse, writes, “Our cat Griffey was a quirky, lovable pain in the ass (he had a downside of peeing in the house). One night I heard a commotion outside and found two huskies attacking him. The many bites became abscesses. I had my own little ICU going for two weeks, flushing out Griffey’s wounds and giving him subcutaneous fluids. It was heart wrenching. He obviously was in pain and wanted to die. I finally let him go in comfort. But the emotional pain I experienced in losing him (yes, the cat) was more intense than I’d ever experienced.”

Ivan, my wonderful coworker, offers the perspective of another culture. He came to the U.S. from his native Belarus (near Russia) as a teenager. “Pets (dogs) did not have companion status where I grew up. It was a domesticated wolf capable of biting its owner over food. So even though I was compassionate over my dogs dying, the scale is hardly equal. I feel there are a handful of cultural and socioeconomic factors at play in experiencing the death of an animal. Still, whoever loses a pet, I am sorry for their loss.”


Jessica would appreciate Ivan’s empathy. She writes, “Back in June we lost our miniature dachshund, Lexie. She was our first love child. We got her from the Oregon Humane Society. She’d been severely abused both physically and mentally. Lexie reminded me a lot of myself, in that I was not shown proper love as a child either. We took her to a chiropractor that apparently could communicate with her. We did not tell him anything about her and he instantly told us she was badly abused in her previous home and suffering from mental issues.”    

“After she died, we cremated Lexie because as Buddhists, we pay homage to our loved ones who have passed away. It’s weird explaining to people how important she was to me and Chi. Money [for the vet bills] was not an issue because we have been blessed with positions that allow us to show these little ones love.”

Christina, in a bit of a contrast, loved her dog Amber, but put limits on how far her family would go with treatment and vet bills after learning Amber had mouth cancer. “Our vet was great, really put things into perspective. It was about quality of life, not the quantity of days we’d make her stay around. Still, it was hard to choose a day to put her down - ‘is this the right day? Or is she actually having a good day today? What day can I miss work without it being a problem?’ Our youngest son, 8, wanted to be there when she died. He came along and it was a good thing. We shared the grief together.” This is akin to my beliefs about grief absorptionBack to Colleen’s sled dog Bev. “As she aged and couldn’t race anymore, we let her run with the team during training sessions, and she taught the younger ones important techniques like holding the gangline out. When she couldn’t do that any longer, she traveled with the team and gave pep talks.” My personal experience with Bev was lots of mutual affection, balanced by her athleticism. Whenever I’d host Bev at my house for a sleepover and take her to the dog park on Mt. Tabor, she’d dig in and pull me. My identity, in Bev’s mind at least, was clear: I was a sled in need of transport, no matter her advancing age, arthritis and rickety hindquarters.

Colleen, who finally had Bev put to sleep last month when she started urinating blood, says, “Losing a dog is the hard part of having a dog. Their life span, compared to ours, is short. But the pain is part of the deal you enter into with loving another being, whether human or not. One almost always has to endure, living with only memories of the other.”

Dana writes that the pain he experienced over his cat’s death was actually a gift: “it helped prepare me for my father’s death a year later.” Lyndell states boldly, “They [pets]are worth the pain of losing them . . . they make life richer.” Jessica says, “Lexie, even though to some just an animal, taught me how to love unconditionally.” Colleen addresses grief as an archetypal experience: “Sometimes when I cry for Bev I cry because her loss reminds me of losing others dear to me, too . . . Bev taught me that it’s okay to cry about all of it — all together in a big ball of messy sadness — because when I do, I stay connected to all that have gone before me.”

That describes how I experienced my mother’s death, too. When we enter into grief, we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s where God hangs out, with love  for us that’s staggeringly oversized, to match.

Do these creatures we love, these pets, change us for the better? I’m convinced they do, when we keep our hearts open as the people in this post did, and when we accept that love and loss will always travel together.

My third and final post on pets and quality of life will be in February. In that post I’ll reveal my decision (it’s been incubating!) on whether I’m bringing an animal into my life. I’ve liked animals ever since I was a child. As always, feel free to weigh in with comments. Next Sunday’s post (I’m writing one post per week now) I’ll write about how to reduce our energy bills by conserving energy, and how we help address global warming/climate change when we do that.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Ami

    I would just say, make sure it’s mutually beneficial for all household beings. For example, people often think of how the pet benefits the people but forget the pet’s perspective.

    For example, most dogs need stable routines, consistent boundaries, and a great deal of energy (play, affection, etc.) to feel confident and, therefore, engage the behaviors the humans like most. That means at least one human should be home frequently on a pretty stable schedule and all humans should be ready to be stable for the dog. Most cats need less consistent attention and tolerate 2-3 nights home alone, but they still need to play for exercise, and they generally respond best to repeated redirected stimulus to change undesirable behavior. Some humans aren’t patient enough to work that hard. Most birds strongly prefer one human they know, and many partners feel very jealous when that happens.

    I think having pets is fantastic, I just think some research is good to get a good fit.

    - A

    • Alison

      Excellent insights, Ami. You have thought all this through in a way few people have. The decision I’m developing (about pet ownership for my own household) takes these kinds of things into account. Thank you for your intelligent, heartful comment.

  • Ami

    I believe it - you are a reflective and soulfully positive person and I think your home will be a gift to any being living in it. :)

  • Tess Giles Marshall

    I’ve been thinking about this.
    First, we love some individual pets more than others (just like humans). My cat Jess was very special in the history of the various cats I’ve shared my home with. When she died a few years back she left a real hole in my heart, even though I still at the time had two other cats.
    The other important thing about losing a beloved pet is that they leave a physical space in your home. With much human bereavement the person we lose may not live with us (parents, grandparents, siblings etc). So although we may grieve deeply, we are not reminded of them on an hourly basis by the absence from the places in our homes where we are accustomed to seeing them every day.

    • Alison

      Great point, Tess. The physical presence of a pet in the home is a hallmark of having a pet, and of how we grow so close to them, and then grieve their absence. Paradoxically, many of us are accustomed to seeing family members only infrequently due to geographical distance. I find that last fact one of the many strange things of this blip-time in human history — it’s about having unleashed fossil fuels, and all the consequences that flow from it, including unlimited mobility. It won’t last forever, because the climate is changing, slowly but disastrously, due to the burning of all those fossil fuels.

      - Started out with pets, and ended up with climate change. It’s because everything is interrelated. Thanks again for the good insight, Tess.

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