Although Roxy was ‘just a dog’, and she died over 8 years ago, recalling her last day still feels heartbreaking for owner Jennifer Muldowney. In fact, she says it was one of the worst days of her life and has inspired her upcoming Tedx Talk in Tallaght this Thursday October 12th.
“She was 16 – quite old for any puppy – and she’d had a series of strokes,” says Jennifer, 35.
“I had just returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Cuba and when I arrived home Roxy came running out as usual to say hello. But everything wasn’t usual - I knew something was wrong. Four hours and another stroke later we were taking her to her death. We had her for 16 years, she was part of the family. She was my best friend through childhood, teenage years and adulthood. I felt like I was betraying her.”
Jennifer’s deep emotions regarding the day her dog was euthanized strikes a familiar chord with just about anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet to euthanasia — more commonly known as “putting a dog to sleep.”
The aftermath was even worse than the act itself, Jennifer says “I often ask myself did we do the right thing, could she have gotten better or was she saying thank you. Her eyes never left mine as she died. And then afterwards, people just don’t know what to do with you, theres no funeral or blueprint to follow. You feel awkward calling into work asking for some time off. You feel your friends look at you thinking “Just get over it, its only a dog” especially if they have had human loss. It seems self indulgent to even think of mourning a pet when faced with human loss so feelings get hidden and grief gets buried deep.”
Ireland is changing when it comes to pet loss as we see recognition of the grief people experience when a beloved pet dies where we never saw it before. There are helplines offering support and a listening ear. You can buy pet condolence cards, memorial jewellery. Pet funeral businesses are springing up: pet cemeteries and pet crematoriums with pet specific caskets, urns and keepsake jewellery.
One study by the Funeral Co-op in the UK found that more than a quarter of respondents had found their pet’s death as difficult as the death of a family member, and a third thought it was on a level with the loss of a friend. Nearly half of the bereaved owners were still mourning after two months, and 16 per cent were struggling a year later.
While it might seem self indulgent or the ‘world gone mad with millenials’ by older generations to mourn the loss of a pet or compare it to the loss of human life, to some it can be just as heartbreaking. All loss and grief is important and essential experiences of the human psych but grief that is dismissed by others can be more painful still.
Pets are often with us 24/7, reliant on us for food, water, exercise, and survival. They become our confidantes and in some cases have been known to prevent suicidal thoughts and help with mental illnesses. Here is a living being who will not judge, reprimand, or dismiss your thoughts, actions or feelings and yet when they pass the loss can be dismissed as ‘just a dog’. It’s not right.
Irish milliner Philip Treacy lost his jack russell, ‘Mr Pig’ in 2004 and said ‘I saw Mr Pig as my friend, not my dog. He was my everything; he was like my child. He was by my side, day and night, for 12 years. How many humans could you say that about?’ Treacy even went on to compose a book Dog Stories, which is an anthology of stories of well-known people (Lady Annabel Goldsmith, Sir Jackie Stewart, Lord Hattersley, Anna Pasternak, Petronella Wyatt, Edward du Cann and Tom Rubython) and their dogs. They recount the adventures of their pets, and the happiness and ultimate sadness they brought to the lives of their owners.
Jennifer used her grief to build a business helping others to grieve and started a company called Rainbow Bridge Memorials offering condolence cards, pet conscious cards and memorial jewellery but it is more than just a business as she says “It has become a community. We have a Facebook page where people will often post about their pet or their grief and others chime in and offer support. We all know the sadness of pet loss and the difficulty in speaking about it to others who don’t have pets. The emails I receive from my clients about my jewellery often overwhelm me as they tell me how much it helps them in their grieving process and some of the emails were heartbreaking to read. It brought the loss of Roxy up all over again but I guess I started the business because when we lost Roxy, I still wanted her with me every day and wherever I go and with the jewellery I can do that and it helps.”
Why are people saying “its only a dog/cat etc”
People who don't understand a pet bond may not understand your pain but don't let others dictate your feelings. You are valid, your feelings are valid. Grief is grief and loss is loss. And remember, you are not alone, there are hundreds of pet owners have gone through similar grieving and mourning.
What do I do now?
The most important step you can take is, to be honest about your feelings. You have a right to feel pain and grief. Someone you loved has died. You have a right to feel anger and guilt too.
Some pet parents find it helpful to express their feelings and memories in stories, or letters to their pet, preparing a memorial such as a photo collage; and talking to other pet lovers about your loss.
Who can I talk to?
Pet lovers! Friends, family, colleagues, anyone who loves their pet just as much as you did. It might be especially helpful to talk to someone who has lost a pet too. They will empathise. Don't hide your feelings in a misguided effort to appear strong or calm. There are also pet loss counsellors and support groups.
When is the right time to euthanize a pet?
This is one of the worst decisions you will hopefully never have to make in life but if it sadly comes your way then your vet is the best judge of your pet's physical condition. You are the best judge of the quality of your pet's daily life. If a pet has a good appetite, still responds to attention, still wants cuddles and/or walks you may feel that this is not the right time. However, if a pet is in constant pain, unresponsive to affection, unaware of its surroundings, and/or uninterested in life, then you may choose to end the beloved companion's suffering as much as it will hurt you deeply.
How should I tell my kids?
Honesty is important. Especially these days, children know a lot more than we do! If you say the pet was "put to sleep," make sure your children understand the difference between death and ordinary sleep or they may never sleep for you again! Try not to say the pet "went away," as your child may wonder what he or she did to make it leave, and wait, tormented, for its return. Don't assume a child is too young or too old to grieve. I find the Rainbow Bridge story is great for children and adults alike. It explains death but allows us to feel at peace, knowing our furbabies are happy and free.
Do other pets grieve too?
Pets often form strong attachments to one another while living in the same house/venue. The survivor of such a pair may grieve for its companion. You will notice small things and you may need to give your surviving pets a lot of extra attention and love to help them through this time.
How soon should I get a new pet?
This is an almost impossible question to answer as every family and person is different in their moments of grief. You need to take the time to fully grieve and evaluate your circumstances. If you do decide to get a new pet, some will advise you to avoid getting a "lookalike" pet, which makes comparisons all the more likely. Or that getting a totally different looking pet will also draw comparisons. But then we got a new pet in the form of our late dogs' granddaughter and we love that fact. It is entirely personal and a difficult question to advise.