What to Expect at a Pet Loss Support Group

When someone experiences the deep heartache of pet loss, no words can properly express the physical pain, pure sorrow, and hollow emptiness felt after losing a beloved friend. Pet loss differs from other losses as we each form a special, unique bond with our pets. We share unconditional love and acceptance of one another, laugh through joyful moments, and always have a confidante to seek comfort and peace. Our pets are our family, so when the day comes when they pass away, we feel more alone than ever before.

Adding to our discomfort and emotional distress, we often experience pet loss as a form of “disenfranchised grief.” This type of grief occurs when our society doesn’t acknowledge or understand our loss and doesn’t provide proper support or care. It can be very difficult to find others who truly understand this deep loss and we sadly encounter many who will expect us to recover easily. No words are more heartbreaking for pet parents than hearing how our best friend was “just a pet.”

However, there are several options for help in feeling less alone. One resource many find helpful is a pet loss support group. Pet loss support groups consist of usually 8-10 people, often led by a licensed professional, who are experiencing pet loss and can share their stories, express their feelings, and discuss coping strategies in a non-judgmental environment. Whether one’s pet has passed away recently or long ago, they are welcome to attend a support group and can even share pictures and personal mementos of their lost friend. These groups now involve both virtual and in person sessions meeting at various frequencies, most commonly one to two times per month. They typically last for one to two hours at a time and are usually complimentary or have an affordable rate. They may take place at your local veterinary office, community center, or counselor’s facility.

The flow of the group meeting varies within each group, but generally participants have a chance to introduce themselves and share their story if they would like. Groups vary in anonymity, but the facilitator ensures that everyone present understands that what is shared remains confidential. It is common for group members to share stories about their goodbye, but also about their pet’s life and their memories. It’s also common for people to just be present and listen if they aren’t ready to share.

Pet loss Support Groups can be beneficial for people of all ages. They are a place to acknowledge the human-animal bond with utmost love and respect and lend a comforting shoulder in times of need. With the modern additions of pet loss support groups and personalized counseling, our society is on its way to better understanding the unique torment of pet loss and finding more ways to help. Some pet loss support groups also include important concepts of anticipatory grief (relating to illness or injury), quality of life discussions, and specialized forms of pet loss (complicated or traumatic).

For those who have experienced the deep devastation of pet loss and are currently trying to swim above the current of conflicting emotions, physical distress, and lonely heartache, know that you are not alone. There is absolutely no loss like that of our beloved furry or feathery family member. It is so important and valuable for bereaved people to seek comfort and support during this hard time; finding a pet loss support group can be a very beneficial first step toward understanding and facing the future ahead and knowing that you are never alone.

MN Pets offers updated grief support resources on our website https://www.mnpets.com/resources. Our Support Specialists are also available to offer help with resources at (612) 354-8500 during our phone support hours of 6am-7pm Monday through Friday and 6am-5pm Saturday and Sunday.

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Part 2: The Act of Dying: What to Expect

The process of dying is a natural one, much like the act of giving birth. The body prepares itself for the event, sometimes months in advance. In Part 2 of this blog series, I will share with you what I have learned to expect in the months, weeks, and hours approaching death.

One interesting thing I would like to note is that if you have experienced the passing of a human loved one like a parent or grandparent, the process may show some similarities in your pet.

Months prior to death

You may start seeing signs of change in your pet as far out as six months and sometimes it could be as late as a few weeks. It is difficult to predict when you’ll start seeing changes, but you may want to consider having the conversation about end of life decisions for your pet when:

  • They have received a terminal diagnosis
  • You notice them starting to withdraw or seek more affection
  • Sleeping more than normal through the day
  • Decreased appetite
  • Declining weight and muscle mass

It is always good to have a conversation early with family and your veterinarian to help you prepare for what is to come. This would also be a good time to look at all of your options for end of life, and how you would prefer to say goodbye. You can call your veterinarian or a mobile practice like MN Pets to talk about options, scheduling, and COVID protocols.

Weeks prior to death

As death approaches, you could expect to see a progression of the above symptoms and behaviors, but please note that not every pet will show these signs and symptoms, some may not show any at all up until the time of passing. You may also start to notice:

  • Self isolation in strange places
  • Increased disorientation/restlessness/agitation
  • Weakness/exhaustion
  • Changes in body temperature (hot or cold)/itching
  • Eyes may lose their luster (become dull)
  • Prolonged wound healing
  • Incontinence
  • Constipation/Diarrhea
  • Fluid retention in the abdomen (pot-bellied appearance)

Days to hours prior to death

You may notice your pet having a sudden rebound, a moment of clarity, where they seem to be back to normal with a good appetite, and maybe enough energy for a walk. This is not unheard of, and in human hospice as well as veterinary hospice, it is usually referred to as “The Swan Song.” This point in the process could last from hours to a day or two, but is often followed by fatigue or collapse. There is not a lot of research as to what causes this sudden surge in energy, but it is believed that when the body undergoes the natural changes such as organ failure, it releases chemical compounds that can naturally give the body energy. (Matloff) This is a good time to spend with your pet, talk with them, share memories, and let them know it is ok to let go.

As our pets get closer to passing, you may see the following changes:

  • Delirium (this can often be misunderstood as pain or discomfort)
  • Drifting in/out of consciousness
  • Sudden calm
  • Non existent appetite, decreased to nonexistent water consumption
  • Difficulty/inability to swallow
  • Muscle spasms/twitching
  • Gum color changes to pale pink/gray/or white
  • Changes in breathing pattern (labored, periods of holding breath)

After going through my own experience of helping my pet pass at home, I was grateful to learn that this stage is a lot harder for us as observers than it is for our pets. When we start seeing changes in breathing for example, our pets are usually no longer conscious about what is going on around them.

Another thing I learned through the booklet “Soar, my Butterfly” by Gail Pope, is that when our pets stop eating and drinking, it’s their body telling them they no longer need to do these things to sustain life. The reason why the body goes into dehydration is because it helps the body regulate the existing fluids for the circulatory system as it continues to slow down. Lack of hydration and food also cause the brain to release endorphins that work as a natural analgesic to help take away any feeling of pain or discomfort. (Pope 9-10)

Time of death

The time of death can look different for each pet, but more often than not, it is a time of peace and gentle passing. Their final breath can come across as a gasp or sigh, you may see them take a final stretch, and become still. It is very normal for a pet to urinate or defecate as their body lets go, and they may pass with their eyes open as blinking is a voluntary reflex. They may wait until you step out of the room to take a shower, or fall asleep, this is very common for pets as well as humans.

Once your pet has passed, you can expect them to go into rigor mortis (the stiffening of the joints) anywhere from 3-4 hours after they pass.

There are several options available to help with the aftercare of your pet. MN Pets offers cremation pick-up services, but you can also bring them to their regular clinic or directly to a local crematory as well. Home burial is also an option, but we recommend you check in with your county ordinances before doing so.

If your pet passes in the middle of the night, when these services are not readily available, we recommend keeping them in a cool, dark space.

When our Tex passed, we scheduled to have an Aftercare Specialist, from MN Pets, come to pick him up the next morning. We put a comfy blanket over him, lit a candle, and sat with him for hours. Our cat came in every now and then to check on us, which was very sweet, because she was never a huge fan of him. With our extra time with him, we decided to try and make our own paw print out of drywall mud, which I DO NOT recommend. We made a mess and I’m still finding spots to scrape off the floor, but I value that memory nonetheless, it gave us an excuse to laugh in between our tears.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, I had never experienced a natural death before, and when I was faced with it last year, I had no idea what to expect or what was happening at the time. As I reflect back on that day, after my research, I can pinpoint each event and I know now that he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and that he didn’t feel any pain.

This is a tough subject, taboo, and a conversation no one wants to have about a loved one. My hopes for this article is to bring peace to those who have gone through this experience, or to help prepare a family who may have to go through this in the future.



Matloff, J. “The Mystery of End-of Life Rallies.” The New York Times, 26 July 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/24/well/the-mystery-of-end-of-life-rallies.html.

Pope, Gail. Soar, My Butterfly: The Animal Dying Experience. 1 ed., CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.

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Part 1: When Euthanasia is Not an Option

What does the ideal scenario look like for you when it comes time to say goodbye to your pet? Does it involve one last trip to the vet that has been there for you since their first puppy visit? Or maybe having a mobile veterinarian come out to your home so your cat can pass in a more familiar environment without the stress of a last car ride? I’ve always been one to say that planning ahead is the best possible thing to do when it comes to the end of life for our pets, but what happens when things don’t go according to plan?

Euthanasia is a unique and compassionate gift we can give our animals when signs of old age have progressed greatly, or when they begin suffering from a terminal illness. Unfortunately, euthanasia may not always be an option for everyone.

The opportunity to consider euthanasia may be impacted by factors such as:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Financial constraints
  • An unexpected and quick turn in your pet’s health
  • Family members not seeing eye-to-eye on deciding when it is time to make that call

I found myself in one of these scenarios just last year with our 5 year old rescue dog, Tex. We had adopted him in February, just before the world shut down due to COVID. At the end of April, he was diagnosed with a severe form of kidney disease that had already progressed so far, we thought we just had months left with him. Our hearts were broken, but we decided to do what we could to help keep him comfortable until it came time to say goodbye. Just three weeks after he was diagnosed, he took a sudden turn for the worse.

I was forced to make a quick decision; either I take him to an emergency clinic where I would have to hand him over, and not be with him due to COVID protocols, or stay with him at home until I could get a doctor out to us to help with euthanasia which would be the next morning. I wasn’t sure how much time he had, but I KNEW I wanted to be with him to say goodbye, so I chose the latter. I am so grateful that I did.

He passed a lot quicker than any of us had anticipated, it was just hours. With the help of our veterinarian over the phone, I saw him through the dying process by myself and he was able to die in the comfort of his own home, and on his own terms.

This experience has opened my eyes in so many ways, but most importantly it has taught me that euthanasia is a luxury, but not always an option or necessity. Death is a natural process, and something the body prepares for, sometimes months in advance, other times just prior to passing.

During this time of COVID, I’ve spoken with several families finding themselves in similar situations. Their regular clinic/emergency clinic is full or cannot allow them inside, and the mobile end-of-life practice is booked days in advance. It is important for everyone to know that deciding to sit with their pet as they pass at home IS an option.

I admit that I would have found much more comfort if I knew what to expect during the dying process. Being a veterinary technician, I’ve only ever been a part of the euthanasia process. I recently read a booklet that explains what to expect from months, days, and hours leading up to death. I can now look back to that day and put together what was happening. This has helped my healing journey immensely.

I hope to share what I have learned with others, whether it’s a conversation walking them through the process, or sending them resources and tips to prepare for the possibility that they may have to comfort their pet as they pass at home.

The booklet I referred to previously is called “Soar, My Butterfly” by Gail Pope. In Part Two of this blog series, I will walk through this booklet and summarize what to expect during the dying process.

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Ways to Memorialize a Loved One

Determining how to memorialize someone we have lost, whether human or furry family member, is a very personal decision. Like many aspects of grief, there is no right or wrong here – just what feels right for you. It can help to think about memorialization options when you are approaching your pet’s end of life.  In this post, we explore some ideas.

Burial and Cremation

First, we will discuss two of the most common methods of memorializing a lost loved one: either burying them in a particular place, or having them cremated. As with everything in this article, one method is not necessarily better than another.

Both burial and cremation are common, socially accepted ways of memorializing a loved one. They can be meaningful because they can provide a physical reminder of our pet in the form of a place to visit their remains. For example, there might be a gravestone or other marker at the burial site, or in the case of cremation, we may have an urn that we keep in a special place. Alternatively, there may be a special place that our furry loved one used to particularly enjoy, like in your backyard, where ashes can be spread.

Often, when people envision cremation, they think of a process through which they receive an urn back with ashes at the end. There are two kinds of cremation where ashes can be sent back home. The first is called a separated cremation. In this scenario, a pet is cremated in a large chamber that can accommodate multiple pets at one time. The size of the chamber allows for ample physical space between everyone in order to ensure that each family receives only their pet’s remains back. In an individual cremation, the pet is in the crematory chamber alone. This style of cremation can be slightly more expensive due to the cost of fuel needed to run more machinery.

Sometimes we either may not receive our loved one’s ashes back, or may not have a specific place to visit them. One example of this is in communal cremation, where a pet is cremated with others. In this instance, ashes generally cannot be returned home due to the possibility of remains mixing. Communal cremation is a completely valid choice, whether due to an owner preferring not to keep ashes, or due to necessity (i.e. limited finances). There are many other ways to memorialize a pet that we will explore.


Many people choose to keep a physical memento of their pet as a way of honoring their life. Below are a few examples.

  • Collar/tags and toys. Some people choose to keep a beloved pet’s collar that they always wore, their collar tags, or their favorite toy.
  • Prints. Many people like to make paw prints or nose prints to remember their pet. Paw prints can be made using clay (such as Crayola Model Magic) for an air-dry option. Nose prints and pawprints can also be made using an ink pad. Some owners use clay or ink prints as the basis of a tattoo or custom jewelry to remember their loved one.
  • Lock of fur. For pets with longer fur, some people may choose to clip a small lock of fur to keep. This can be kept safe in a locket, vial, or shadow box.
  • Photos, paintings, and shadow boxes. Pictures are a great memento alone, and they can be the basis for a shadow box. Try searching online for ideas on how you might arrange a shadow box to commemorate your pet. Many ideas incorporate some of the above mentioned items, such as a pawprint or a collar. Your only limit here is your imagination and the dimensions of the box, so feel free to be creative.
  • Gardens. For owners with a green thumb, cultivating a memorial garden can be a beautiful, symbolic way to honor your pet’s time with you while fostering the growth of brand-new life. These can be as simple or as complex as you like, from a grouping of plants in a special corner of your yard to a large garden with walkway stones, benches, and a memorial plaque.
  • Artisan-based services. The internet has greatly expanded owners’ options regarding artful ways to remember loved ones. Through a service like Etsy, or another local artist, paintings can be commissioned based on a photo of your pet to create an extra special memorial item. Others might prefer a memento that they can carry with them, like jewelry. Some artists and crematories offer jewelry with a small compartment to hold cremains, whiskers, or a tuft of fur. Others can even create gems and other glass artwork out of a small portion of cremains. There are many options beyond these for the pet owner who prefers a unique memento!

Ceremonies or rituals

Some people find great comfort in creating a ceremony to memorialize their furry loved one, similar to how you might hold a funeral for a human family member. Funerals or other remembrance ceremonies have been held for centuries for a multitude of reasons: they help us accept the reality of a loss, express our grief over the loss of someone special to us, and connect with others for support as we grieve

Consider whether some form of ceremony or ritual may be meaningful for you in your grief journey. This can be done alone, or with other people.

Here are some ideas to spark your imagination.

  • Consider incorporating meaningful dates. It may feel extra meaningful to remember your loved one on certain specific days each year, such as their birthday, the anniversary of their passing, or another special occasion such as their adoption date. For others, small day-to-day reminders of your pet (like memories that bubble up, or memorial items) might be all you need. There is no right way to grieve, nor a specific timeline, so do what fits you best.
  • Write. Some people process their feelings in a very verbally-oriented way. Writing about your loved one can help to commemorate your loss and allow you to express how you are feeling. You might journal about your pet’s life, or about a favorite memory with them. Some people may choose to write a poem or song. This can be shared with others, such as on social media, or kept completely private; it is up to you!
  • Meditate. Another idea to commemorate a loss is to meditate on your grief. It can be very helpful to sit with your feelings as you think about your loved one as a means of helping your body and mind release them. A simple meditation can be found here. As your grief changes and shifts over time, you may find that eventually your meditation focuses on feelings of gratefulness or even joy as you think about your loved one.
  • Hold a ceremony of remembrance. This can be as long or short as you’d like, religious or non-religious – there are no limits. Some things to think about here incorporate the previous ideas mentioned, as well as a few additional ones:
    • What important items should be included, if any? Perhaps you choose to display photos of your pet, items they used in life like their collar or favorite toy,  or memorial items like a clay paw print or urn.
    • How would you like to open and close the ceremony? Many people choose to light candles, read a meaningful poem, or have a moment of silence to reflect, as some examples. This can be a great place for music, too, especially if there is a certain song that reminds you of them.
    • What would be a meaningful way to commemorate your loss? Some people choose to read short pieces they have written about their pet’s life; watch favorite videos of their pet, or run a slideshow of favorite photos; and/or take time to allow those present to share their favorite memories.

MN Pets will be holding our first ever Remembrance Ceremony in an upcoming Facebook Live on September 2, 2021! Stay tuned to our Facebook page for details on how you can submit a memory of your loved one to be read during the ceremony.

In conclusion, remember that whatever you choose, you get to remember your loved one in the way that fits you best. Your grieving process is as unique to you as your fingerprint. 

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. – Thomas Campbell

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When Pets Stop Eating

While not every pet will stop eating when they are ill or dying, lack of appetite is a common occurrence in those at the end of life. We often hear pet owners describe how long it has been since their pet ate a good meal, or anything at all. Typical of cats, refusing to eat can be a sign of discomfort. Dr. Amanda Doran puts it this way, “Not eating is an animal’s way of telling us that something is wrong.”  There can be many underlying causes to a pet’s change in appetite and sometimes without an exam and further diagnostics it can be really hard to tell what the cause is.  For some diseases this can be a sign that the condition is progressing, or it could be a new dental condition or nausea. There may be a treatable cause and there may be other palliative options.

So what do we do when our pet is suddenly turning up their nose at their once-favorite treat? We may have a few options.

  • Medical intervention. Some pet owners may turn to their regular veterinarian to see if an appetite stimulant may be appropriate. Reaching out to your veterinary team can be a great place to start.
  • Try other foods. Offering a change from your pet’s typical food may encourage them to eat a bit. For cats, switching the brand of food (unless it is a prescription diet!) or changing from dry to canned food may help. Dogs will sometimes decide that a little bit of lunch meat is a good snack. Heating up or adding water to your pet’s food can sometimes entice them to take a few bites.
  • Consider euthanasia. If your pet is nearing the end of their life and them no longer eating is just one of the symptoms you are noticing, it may be time to consider helping them with euthanasia.

When pets go more than 2-3 days without eating, we start to worry about internal changes that could cause discomfort or pain. Our pets are experts at hiding pain, so it’s not always easy to tell that they’re uncomfortable. As Dr. Amanda says, “we have a very narrow window of opportunity to say goodbye on our terms and we are not sure when that will close.” In these cases, it can be a kind option to consider euthanasia a bit sooner rather than later in order to spare your friend any suffering.

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Styles of Grief

There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Many of us have heard this, yet still, when faced with the death of a loved one, we may wonder whether our experiences are ‘normal’. There is a cultural idea of grief that most of us can conjure up if we try: crying, venting feelings, and seeking support from other people. But perhaps you know someone who seems restless after a loss, or throws himself or herself into action, perhaps working tirelessly at a meaningful cause.

In the mid-90s, Dr. Kenneth Doka and Dr. Terry Martin created a conceptual framework for understanding styles of grief. In this framework, there are two poles on either end of the grieving spectrum: intuitive grief and instrumental grief. People can fall anywhere along the spectrum and experience normal, healthy grief.

Intuitive grief is often thought of as affective, or feelings-based. A person with a more intuitive style will cope by finding ways to express and work through their emotions. This can mean that they experience what we culturally tend to think of as grief – sadness, and strong emotions that can hit in waves. Intuitive grievers will often need to express their feelings to get back to a sense of equilibrium again.

Instrumental grief, on the other hand, is more cognitive or behavioral in nature. People who grieve in this way may not feel the need to cry, but their grief might express itself as restlessness or a need to do something. This style of grief can also be characterized by fact-finding, problem-solving, and thinking about the loved one.  Finally, some people have a blended grieving style, and pull from both categories as they cope. For example, you might need to cry sometimes, and find great solace in creating a detailed memorial for your beloved pet.

You may be wondering: if both styles are healthy and valid, why is it that intuitive grief seems to be more expected by those around us? Doka and Martin believe that this is a form of bias present in Western culture. Feelings are more highly valued, partly due to earlier grief theories that suggested that expressing emotions is a necessary part of moving through loss. Instrumental grief can appear more ambiguous to others, and people who are unfamiliar with your needs as an individual may question whether you are moving on too quickly or stifling your feelings.

However, having one style and forcing yourself to adopt another, perhaps because it is more culturally acceptable, is a recipe for disaster. For example, in a 2010 interview, Dr. Doka describes an example that may be familiar to many of us: men may be expected to grieve instrumentally, due to gender biases, but some will naturally be more intuitively oriented. The clash between cultural expectations and inward needs can result in the suppression of grief in order to maintain a strong persona.

While we receive many messages about what grief reactions may be expected of us, know this: as long as you are doing what you need to do to move through your grief, you are doing it right.

Sources (used as a general reference throughout)
Taking It Like a Man: Understanding Grieving Styles | Psychology Today
Grief and Gender (whatsyourgrief.com)

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Supporting Older Adults – Part 2

Strategies for Supporting Older Adults Experiencing Loss

In this two-part blog post, we began by exploring what factors can influence how seniors experience pet loss relative to other groups of people. This week, we end by outlining ways to support them in light of these differences. Click here to read the first post in this series.

Given the elements that can set them apart, how can we support the older adults in our lives when they are experiencing a loss? This can feel like an overwhelming question. However, the key is to take the steps you can, no matter how small. Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Check in with them via regularly. A phone conversation (or, during COVID-19, a masked and socially distanced outdoor visit) can be a bright spot in someone else’s day even if it lasts just 10-15 minutes. You can talk about whatever you like – how your day has gone, TV shows you’ve been catching up on, books that you’re reading … the sky is the limit. They may want to talk about their pet or their grief, but even if they aren’t ready to, a casual conversation about other light-hearted events may be a welcome distraction.

It can be especially nice to consult with an older friend about an area where they have some wisdom and expertise. For example, perhaps your neighbor has made her own bread for years and you are trying to figure out where to begin with your sourdough starter!

Know that check-ins do not need to even be as involved as a phone call or visit, if something shorter fits better. Perhaps you agree to knock on your friend’s living room window each morning when you take your dog out to use the bathroom, and they’ll wave at you if they are doing OK.

Offer support where they would like it.

Emotional support. Loss can be incredibly isolating, especially in older age, when people are more likely to experience multiple losses in a shorter period of time. Feel free to ask the person how they are doing and to invite them to talk about their grief with you. It can be healing for people to talk about the memories they have of those they have lost.

Task support. While some people may take you up on your offer to discuss their loss, others may not be as comfortable discussing their feelings or their grieving process. As a result, it can be helpful to also offer a concrete, specific way that you can help. For example, perhaps you can make an extra dinner portion every Friday night and drop it off for your neighbor. Maybe you can make sure their walkways are shoveled when it snows. Or perhaps you can make sure their mail and newspaper are tucked safely into their doorway each morning.

Know who in their personal life to reach out to if they may need help. Does your older family member or neighbor have an aide who visits every day, or an adult daughter who comes over to help out a few times a week? If your friend is comfortable, ask if they can share that person’s contact information with you so that you can be a part of their safety net.

Have information for local support agencies on hand if your friend would like to explore ways that they can get more assistance at home.

  1. The Senior Linkage Line 800-333-2433 can help you gather info on local services supporting older adults in your area (for example, questions about Medicare coverage, homemaking and caregiving services, and meal delivery).
  2. Help Older Adults MN (https://helpolderadultsmn.org/) has a searchable online listing of services during COVID, such as grocery delivery, medicine delivery, tax assistance, and wellness check-ins.
  3. Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly is running a phone companion program where adults ages 65+ can start and build a relationship with a volunteer that will reach out and call them regularly. You can visit https://www.littlebrothersmn.org/phone-companions/ to register online; email phonecompanions@littlebrothersmn.org to register by email, or call 612-746-0737 to register by phone

Remember that every small gesture helps. Acts that may feel insignificant to you can make a considerable difference in another person’s life.

“Grief releases love and it also instills a profound sense of connection.” – Jacqueline Novogratz

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Supporting Older Adults – Part 1

Loss is experienced differently by everyone. However, we know that some factors tend to impact certain groups of people in specific ways. Older adults, or those who are age 65 and up, make up a group that shows some common patterns. You may be a child, friend, or neighbor of an older person who has lost their animal companion and you are looking for ideas to support them in their grief. Or, you may be an older adult yourself and hoping to better understand your grief and your emotions and how to cope with them. In this two-part blog post, we will explore the unique experiences of older grievers and outline ways we can support them in light of these differences.

Part 1: What Sets Older Clients Apart?

Differences in social support

One of the ways that elders can be different is that they may be at a higher risk for isolation, with one-quarter of adults aged 65 and older considered by the Center for Disease Control to be socially isolated. There are many reasons for this. For example, older adults are more likely to live alone, to have lost friends or family, and to experience chronic illnesses or disabilities such as hearing loss that can limit their social engagement (CDC).

In addition, during the era of COVID-19, social connection is often limited even further due to the increased risks for this age group. Older adults are less likely to have access to the virtual supports that many of us have come to rely on, such as social media, Zoom calls, and virtual support groups.

Unique bonds with pets

Second, due in part to this first point, older adults may have a stronger, more interdependent bond with their pet than others do. A pet may serve as a senior’s primary companion, especially if they do not live with anyone else. Depending on the person’s needs, a pet may even provide support for physical well-being, such as reminding them to be physically active or to eat regularly throughout the day. Adding to this, pets can help owners stay alert to changes in their surroundings that they might otherwise miss – think of your dog who makes sure that you know when someone comes to the front door!

This stronger bond can mean that others in the pet owner’s life do not understand the intensity of their relationship with a beloved pet, nor the depth of their grief. This can intensify feelings of isolation.

Deeper connection to the end-of-life experience

Third, elders may connect to the end-of-life experience in a different way. Being in their twilight years themselves, they may relate strongly to a pet’s health struggles and end of life experience. Older pet owners may be living with similar diagnoses or making similar decisions for themselves, or other family members.

In addition, for many seniors, this may be their last pet, which can bring a heartbreaking sense of finality to the loss. This can make the loss of a pet feel even more profound, as it can be symbolic of a larger ending for them.

In our next post, we’ll share some ideas for supporting the older adults in your life through the loss of their pet. No matter how you’re able to support a griever in your life, know that your presence and compassion are valuable and truly matter.

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Until we meet again

I thought it was “goodbye” when you took your last, soft breath. You’d fought a long, good fight, and it was time to rest.

I knew I needed to give you peace, even if it meant relinquishing mine. I knew I needed to help you find comfort, even though it left me inconsolable.

I thought it was goodbye as I held your paw in my palm. I felt your warm, soft fur. I kissed your head, and buried my face in your side, feeling the last, gentle swells of your breathing, until you breathed no more.

I thought I would never be whole again. It felt like a piece of my soul departed with you.

I thought it was “goodbye” that day.

But one spring morning, you came back to me. I ran my hand through the dew-dropped grass and felt your fur, sprinkled with rain after a happy jaunt through a springtime shower.

You returned on a warm summer evening when a soft, distant rumble of thunder echoed across the night. I closed my eyes, and there you were: the slow, rhythmic rumble of you sleeping next to me.

I took a walk one clear autumn day, and you found me again. The sun warmed the October breeze as it caressed my face, and I felt the gentle brush of your sun-warmed fur. You greeted me again in the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet, your happy paws unseen, but dancing next to me.

And when I stepped out on a frigid, winter’s night to gaze into the silence of the falling snow, your cold, wet nose found my unsuspecting hand once more, snowflakes melting into my skin like memories. I shut my eyes tight, and left my hand in the frigid air just a little bit longer, savoring, cherishing.

I know now that it never was “goodbye.” It was only “until we meet again.”

Now, when I look into the waning glow of twilight and see your gentle eyes, I close my own, take a slow deep breath, and smile, for you are there with me. And when the moment passes, and you go on your way once more, I whisper into the wind “until we meet again.”


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Making Meaning Out of Loss

The death of a beloved pet changes your life forever. As grief scholars Nancy Hooyman and Betty Kramer write in Living Through Loss, losing a loved one – whether animal or human – can challenge some of our deepest-held beliefs, including that we are safe from harm, that the world around us is predictable, and that bad things will not happen to us.  To integrate the loss into our lives and move forward through our sadness, we must find meaning in the experience.

What is meaning making? It is the way that we come to understand a life event, but it is also more than that. Meaning making is living in a way that encompasses both the pain and joy of our experiences. It’s about moving forward with our lives in a way that lets us continue to grow while we honor the life that has been lost.

Meaning can be made in ways that are as individual as each of us. Hooyman and Kramer give some examples:

  • Activism. Some people make meaning out of terrible events by working toward a shared cause. For example, many people choose to join the movement to ban breed-specific legislation to honor their cherished pup. Another common form of activism is in fundraising, volunteering, or fostering for a local animal rescue organization.
  • Adjusting the lens from which you view the world. Maybe your dog Buddy taught you that there is great strength in approaching people you don’t know with love and acceptance. This can be incorporated into your life to honor his memory.
  • Reconsidering your values and adjusting your life accordingly. After a loss, many people will choose to spend more time with family or work closer to home. Others might donate to local shelters or rescues who take in animals like our beloved friend.
  • Reinterpreting the event to see the positives that have resulted from it. This “rose-colored glasses” approach is not meant to negate or ignore the event, but rather, to allow us to see its ripple effect on our lives, and in decisions we have made down the line.
  • Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the world around us. Sometimes a profound loss can help us to see the beauty of seemingly insignificant things in our lives. We might appreciate the rich green of our cat’s eyes a little bit more, or recognize the way that a funny text or a hug from a friend lifts our mood and helps us feel loved.
  • Creating a narrative or story. Telling the story of our pet’s life, whether verbally or in writing, can help us to process feelings after a loss. In addition, stories are created to be told! Sharing your pet’s story with trusted others can be an important part of healing.

Why is meaning-making important? Today, many grief and loss professionals believe that the process of creating meaning out of a loss helps us to move forward with our lives in a positive way. It helps us adapt to a new normal and embrace a forward-thinking view. Some argue that those of us who can incorporate a sense of meaning into our losses are healthier in the long run, both physically and mentally, than those of us who do not.

Finally, remember that grief operates on a different timetable for everyone, and is not a process that can be rushed. Grief is like a tide that approaches and recedes, and although the strength and timing of its waves will lessen over time, losses change us permanently. While it is important to create a sense of meaning around your loss over time, it is equally important to allow yourself to heal at your own pace.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler

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