By Katie Marsico
September of last year was a difficult month for my family. Buster, our Cairn Terrier, had been diagnosed with canine cognitive disorder a month before, and the prognosis wasn’t good. “You’ll know it’s time when the bad days outnumber the good days,” our vet warned us. One Friday morning, we woke up on the heels of several “bad days.” Buster was hardly sleeping through the night anymore unless he was sedated, and he had no idea what to do when he went outside for a walk. More alarming than anything else, however, was that he refused to eat and seemed suddenly terrified of all of us, as if he had no idea who we were. Later that day, I sobbed goodbye at the vet’s office as I watched her inject the necessary medications that offered Buster relief from his suffering and the final act of love we, as his guardians, could provide.
Back at home, I agonized over our choice. Then eight months pregnant, I was devastated that our new baby would never meet Buster, who had always loved children. My toddler repeatedly asked where her friend was, our other two dogs were noticeably perplexed by his absence, and my husband and I couldn’t avoid crying jags that came at us hard and unexpected. So many questions and so much pain filled our home that I wondered if any of us would ever really be able to remember anything about Buster besides his sickness and death.
People often have to face difficult—albeit inevitable—decisions about their pet’s quality of life and the terms on which they say farewell. Animals bring us tremendous joy, but there are also bitterly unpleasant moments when it’s up to us to offer them the mercy and compassion they deserve, even if it breaks our hearts. After accepting this truth, however, we can seek comfort in a society that has become better equipped to help us cope with our loss. What is the best way to move on, release the hurtful memories, and embrace the irreplaceable ones?
I have often heard distraught pet guardians say of their ailing companions, “I hope he just goes in his sleep.” While the thought of a cherished dog or cat slipping peacefully away on his or her own seems uncomplicated and ideal, it’s often far from reality. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you’re without options when it comes to bidding your final farewells. Dennis Brennan and his wife, Betty, own and operate Cubby’s Compassionate Pet Service out of Orland Park, Illinois. Serving Illinois and occasionally other nearby states, the Brennans provide at-home euthanasia with the help of licensed vets who accompany them on house calls. Dennis Brennan explains that his company allows families to share their pet’s last moments in a quiet, stress-free environment with which everyone is familiar.
“The process helps guardians grieve on their own terms,” he says. “If people are unable to stay with their pet while the euthanasia takes effect, my wife can step in. There’s no rush for anyone to say goodbye—our clients can spend as much time with their animal as they need to after the vet finishes.” When guardians feel ready, the Brennans bring the animal’s remains to one of the cemeteries they work with for cremation or burial.
“We’re very conscious that a grieving process needs to take place,” Brennan says. “Regardless of when or where an animal is euthanized, pets are family. A benefit to at-home euthanasia, however, is that everyone, from children to other animals, has the opportunity to let go and begin healing.”
“One of the critical steps to dealing with a pet’s death is learning about the various stages of bereavement and sharing with others who can understand and validate your loss,” says Wallace Sife, DVM, PhD, and the founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), as well as the author of The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies. The APLB is a nonprofit organization based out of Brooklyn that offers a variety of online services, including four live chat rooms addressing topics ranging from losing a pet to anticipatory bereavement.
“The chat rooms are an effective tool for people who want to express their emotions without having to physically display them in front of others,” Sife says. “Pet guardians from as far away as New Zealand and France log on, and so far we’ve helped more than 24,000 people share their experiences and put their grief into a meaningful perspective.”
For those individuals who prefer the sound of someone’s voice, hotlines such as the University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine’s C.A.R.E Helpline are alternative resources. Staffed by specially trained veterinary students, C.A.R.E. receives about 450 calls each year.
“First and foremost, we try to let people know that what they are feeling is absolutely normal,” says Erica Jewell, the student director of C.A.R.E. “One of the many healing strategies we recommend is finding special ways to memorialize your pet—donating money to an animal-related charity in their name, holding a remembrance ceremony, or putting together a memory book with pictures.” But whether a guardian copes best by reading, typing on the Internet, or talking on the phone, Jewell emphasizes the importance of accepting grief as a sign of the incredible bond that people share with their pets. “Some callers say they’re having a harder time with the death of their animal than the loss of a parent, and that is okay. It’s a powerful relationship that you should embrace rather than feel guilty about.”
Guardians frequently have mixed reactions to getting another pet after suffering a loss. Some are convinced that they never want to expose themselves to similar pain again. Others seek a quick fix to grief by immediately adopting a new animal. In the end, neither extreme is advisable nor necessary.
“The length of time a guardian should wait before adopting again depends largely on the individual,” Sife says. “However, I personally recommend going through the bereavement process first. We need to keep on loving, but there is no such thing as a ‘replacement pet.’ Every animal’s soul is unique and wonderful.” Brennan agrees and adds that many people end up discovering that they’re able to open their hearts and homes once more.
“I often tell clients who shun the idea of future pets that I’ll see if they say the same thing in a year or so,” he jokes. “The animals you’ve lost will never be duplicated and should always be cherished. People who choose to adopt again are simply making the wonderful decision to share their love with another creature.” As for my family, I know that one day we’ll stumble upon a dog in need of a good home who is the perfect fit with our crazy, furry, ragtag existence. He won’t be a second Buster, but he’ll be an animal that Buster would have wanted us to help out. In the meantime, I’ve found that my good days now outnumber my bad. My heart is still healing, but my memories are all happy.
Cubby’s Compassionate Pet Service
Looking for pet-friendly burial options in your area?
Chicago area residents can find a plethora of places to put their cherished companions to rest. The Hinsdale Animal Cemetery, established in 1926, offers a number of options for grieving guardians. Private burials and cremations are available including a variety of casket options or urns for your four-legged’s final resting place. They also offer a number of ways to memorialize your pet including remembrance plaques, memorial bricks in the cemetery walkway, memorial trees, take home memorials, and LifeGem created diamonds. An option for residents in the Northwest suburbs is Aarrowood Pet Cemetery in Vernon Hills. It offers caskets and vaults, special order urns, and on-site memorial services on 5 acres of land set aside for animals including an equine garden exclusively for horses. Meanwhile, city residents can lay their loved ones to rest at the Illinois Pet Cemetery located on the Northwest side near Welles and Horner Parks. —Jason A. Heidemann
Aarrowood Pet Cemetery & Crematory
24090 N. US Hwy 45, Vernon Hills
Hinsdale Animal Cemetery
6400 S. Bentley Ave, Willowbrook
(630) 323-5120 • www.PetCemetery.org
Illinois Pet Cemetery
2451 W. Pensacola Ave, Chicago