BY JULES JONES
I've helped myself get through most of those deaths by being with the pet when they've died...
As I sit down to write this blog, memories of pets that I've had the honour and pleasure of knowing throughout my life flitter through my mind – there were so many of them – how could I possibly have endured the dying and death of so many beloved pets? Being a death doula has me thinking about dying and death all the time, and through my training and work, I recognize that I've helped myself get through most of those deaths by being with the pet when they've died. I was there to comfort and hold a safe space for them as they continued their journey out of this physical world and on to the next. In essence, I was performing some of the many tasks that I do as a death doula, but with my pets.
I had some pets as a child, but I don't recall when, or how they died, just that they weren't there anymore. Fast forward to adulthood and having my own family, I can clearly remember the dying and death journey of some of those family pets. My children had hamsters when they were growing up, and I can remember one in particular who was named Zippity. When he died, I thought it was important to show my daughters that death was a part of life and it was our responsibility to take care of our deceased pets and honour them in the same way that we would honour our human family members that have died - with a funeral. So we wrapped him up in some tissue, placed his little body in a cardboard box and buried him in the tiny grave we dug for him. I asked my daughters if they had anything they wanted to say and one of them said: “he was a good hamster” and that was the end of that. I want to think that my daughters learned that death is indeed a part of life - but I think they, like most people, are still working on that.
It's one of the hardest things to do, to be with someone, whether it be a human or a pet when they take their last breath.
When my daughters were older, we had an indoor cat named Oscar. Oscar was a rescue from the local SPCA – he was the one cat that didn't go nuts when people came in to see the cats that were available for adoption. He was laying there on a perch that was in his kennel, and he looked at me as if to say “Yup, so...when are you going to take me home? How about now? Okay?” He was the one that stole my heart that day, (and every day after) so he came home with us. Oscar lived a reasonably long, happy life, but one day, he snuck out of the house and didn't come home. We went out and called for him, put up "missing cat" posters, put the word out that he was missing; we were heartbroken, he was gone.
After a couple of days of searching and hoping, our neighbour came over and asked about Oscar and told us he thought that he saw Oscar in his garden. I went out to see, and there he was, but something was terribly wrong with him, he wasn't responding. I rushed him to the vet for emergency care, what could have happened to him? After doing a battery of tests to rule things out, the vet said that Oscar had most likely gotten into some poison, possibly antifreeze, but he couldn't be sure. It wasn't looking good; Oscar was having seizures, his eyeballs were shaking and couldn't focus, and the medication wasn't working. After a couple of days, we realized how much he was suffering and that there wasn't anything further that we could do; we compassionately chose to help him die with dignity, and we made the appointment to have him euthanized.
My daughters and I talked about it and decided that we would go and be with Oscar at his most vulnerable time. It's one of the hardest things to do, to be with someone, whether it be a human or a pet when they take their last breath. When Oscar took his last breath, he was in my arms, and I could feel and see his soul leave his body and go on to the next part of his journey – the feelings of love, sadness, and peace (and maybe even a little bit of happiness that he's moved on, and not suffering anymore) came over me. I remember sobbing and rocking back and forth as he lay there, he was gone, forever. But, I had so many great of memories of Oscar's life with us, and he wasn't suffering anymore – for that I was happy.
when things are traumatic, logical thinking can sometimes go out the window.
For me, the difference between a hamster death and a cat death was immense! When a hamster dies, in my experience, they die when no one's looking and are usually found dead in their cage. Other, larger pets like cats and dogs aren't that quiet about their exit from this world, we tend to be more involved in a dog or cat death, it seems more traumatic, and when things are traumatic, logical thinking can sometimes go out the window. At that time, it never occurred to me that I could take Oscar home and bury him in the backyard and have a funeral, just like we did with Zippity the hamster. I know! I was able to think things through and have a funeral for a hamster, but that memory eluded me, and I had Oscar cremated.
Now as a Death Doula, I know that I'm completely capable of taking my deceased family members (yes, pets and humans) home to care for and honour them with a home funeral, I can't imagine doing it any other way.
Preparing and planning for the death of a pet...
Just as with our human family members, it's always a good thing to have the discussions about the eventual death of a pet. Having a plan on how you want to deal with your pet at death will make it easier for you and your pet when the time comes.
When having the family discussions about the eventual death of your pet, here are just a few things to consider:
- Can you or a family member be there with your pet if/when the time comes for your pet to be euthanized? If you can't, try to arrange it so that someone who knows your pet could be there in your place. Some vets say 90% of people don't want to be in the room when it's time to euthanize their pet. The pet becomes very afraid and looks everywhere for their human family member, only to die looking into a complete stranger's eyes, terrified.
- Do you want a backyard burial or cremation? If cremation, do you want a private cremation done and then have the ashes returned to you?
- Will you have a funeral for your pet?
- If you can't have a backyard burial, are there are any Pet Cemeteries in your area?
However you choose to make your pet's death beautiful, it's my sincerest hope that your journey through the death of your beloved pet will fill your heart with awe and your eyes with beauty.
If you would like more information on the services that Jules provides as a Death Doula and Educator, please visit her website at www.amindfuldeath.ca.