When her family lost Elvis, their beloved black Labrador, in 2004, Dr. Wendy Hauser's two young children repeatedly pleaded with her to help them make sense of their pet's death.
“Why?” her daughter, Elizabeth, who was 7 years old at the time, and her son, Andrew, 9, kept asking.
“Two hours later, they're still doing this,” she recalled. “I finally just had to say … ‘Mommy's heart is broken, too, and she needs a little bit of time to herself to remember Elvis.’”
When it's time to say goodbye to a family pet, it's not easy even for a family with an expert such as Hauser, who is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting in Parker, Colorado, and a special advisor to ASPCA Pet Health Insurance.
She has helped numerous families euthanize dogs, cats, guinea pigs and other animals when the time came.
Monday, Aug. 28, is Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, a day to share memories of beloved pets that have "crossed the Rainbow Bridge," according to the American Kennel Club. It was started in 2015 by author Deborah Barnes, who wrote the book "Purr Prints of the Heart – A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond," in tribute to her cat Mr. Jazz.
The death of a pet can be extremely difficult mentally and emotionally, but there are things pet owners can do to make sure their pets are comfortable and to help families grieve.
What is anticipatory grief and how do you deal with it?
Anticipatory grief arises when it hits you that your pet is aging, or you find out your pet has a chronic illness. “You begin to imagine what life would be like without your pet,” Hauser shared. “Especially if you know that the time is coming near.”
Another family pet, Chester, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, helped Hauser learn how to handle that. Diagnosed with a heart condition at 7 years old, Chester was given six to 18 months to live. It was a huge blow for Hauser, who thought he’d live until he was at least 12 or 14.
“I was so shell-shocked,” she said. “I just lost it when I got in my car.”
But Chester didn’t know he was dying. He still wanted to go on hikes with her and play.
“He doesn't know he's got a death sentence looming over his head,” she shared. “Every day for Chester is a great day and I should celebrate him and enjoy him in that same light. Chester taught me the value of maybe not dwelling so much on the future and living in the minute.”
Talking to children about losing a family pet and how to help them cope
Use books to help a child process the loss of a pet. Hauser bought the book "Dog Heaven," by Cynthia Rylant to foster conversation about the passing of their pets. “When I knew that it was time for Elvis to cross the rainbow bridge, I actually dipped his paw in red finger paints and I put his paw print on the inside of the book,” she said. “I wrote what I thought Elvis would say to Andrew and I wrote what I thought Bubba would say to Elizabeth.” Other books that can help children process their grief include “Goodbye, Brecken: A Story about the Death of a Pet” by David Lupton and “A Special Place for Charlee: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss” by Debby Morehead.
Talk straight to your kids. Language such as “putting pets to sleep” can be confusing for children, said Sarah Balcom, the assistant dean of academic programs at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “They take things very literally,” said Balcom, who previously taught Companion Animal Care and was a small animal veterinarian. It's better to say, “our pet is very sick and in a lot of pain. Let’s talk about death and what that means,” she shared.
Consider grief counseling. When the family got the news they'd lose Bubba, the family’s 180-pound Mastiff, Hauser knew her daughter would need emotional support because she was “so bonded with the dog.” He spent his nights sleeping on the floor next to her bed. She had her daughter speak to a grief counselor at Colorado State University and her children participated in a video to help kids deal with the loss of a pet.
Have a pet memorial. Some of Hauser’s clients attend ceremonies where family and friend share stories and hang pictures of their pets on a memory tree.
Let a child choose how to grieve. “Give children a sense of control by giving them choices on whether they want to be present, whether they want to say goodbye, how they want to remember their animal,” shared Eric Richman, a clinical social worker at Tufts University. It may help to let children get a stuffed animal when they lose a pet as a “a transitional object,” he said. “It's not replacing that animal,” cautioned Richman, who runs a support group for those grieving the loss of pets. “That (stuffed) animal is something that they can talk to, they can hug, they can sleep with when they're having strong feelings about missing their animals.”
When it's time for your pet to go, surround them with love, expert says
Hauser said it can be beneficial for owners to be present when pets are euthanized because they can say goodbye and “close that window.”
She has euthanized pets at her hospital and at clients' homes. It can be done wherever the pet will be most comfortable and anyone who cares for the pet can be present, including other family pets, Hauser said.
Who should be present can be a tough decision. When they euthanized their dog Elvis in 2004, her daughter was with the family’s nanny. She eventually told Hauser she would’ve liked to have been there.
“She has never let me forget that she wasn't there,” Hauser said. “She said it wasn't fair ... She was very wise beyond her years.”
As the date approaches, pet owners may question their decision to euthanize their pet. “The last day is rough because the animals seem to know,” Hauser said. “They really have a good day and you think ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m euthanizing my animal and all of a sudden, they have a little bit more life in their step than they've had. Maybe I need to put it off.'”
But usually, most clients tell her they waited too long to euthanize their pets. “They know that they kept them alive for them and not for the sake of the pet,” she shared.
When is the best time to get a new pet?
Some people never get a new pet because they can’t stomach the potential loss of another companion. Some get new pets before they euthanize their current ones. “Unfortunately, there is no magic answer,” Hauser said. “It's what feels right. And you're never replacing an animal, even if you get the same breed. Every animal is unique and an individual.”
Hauser’s husband doesn’t understand how she can handle the emotional toll euthanasia takes on a person, she said.“I say it's the last gift that I can give them … the gift of a good and peaceful and pain-free death.”
Can pet insurance help me when it’s time to say goodbye?
Owners can talk to veterinarians about pet insurance as another way to help families prepare for losing their pets, Hauser said. Some policies also cover preventative care. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance covers the cost of euthanasia, cremation and burial costs, she shared.
However, pet insurance may not always be an option for those on low or fixed incomes, Richman said.
“Sometimes it takes out some of the financial burden in terms of making decisions and the reality of it is that sometimes people do have to make very difficult choices,” he shared. “I've had folks who decided that they weren't going to pay rent one month because they needed to pay for that animal’s care.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Loss of a pet: How to prepare and how to help your family heal