Pet Loss: Deciding on After-Death Care for A Cherished Pet

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A reader writes: I lost my sweet cat just this week, and I'm so confused as to what I should do! My vet is holding his body right now in a freezer. I have an appointment to have him cremated on Tuesday and I will witness it to make certain that it is his remains that I get back, but in the last few days I have heard that it is not good to destroy the body if possible, because when the body/spirit is renewed it should be intact. If there is a place or way that we see each other again, I don't want to ruin the chances of it happening by doing the wrong thing. Please help me, I'm afraid and don't know what to do. If you can respond before Tuesday afternoon I would be very appreciative - if not, that's okay too - I just thought I would try. Thank you.

P.S. The reason I wasn't planning to bury him was because I don't know how long I will be living here at the place I'm at now. All my other pets were at my mom's because they all lived there during their lives, but this cat was with me after I moved out on my own. He never knew that home, and I felt it wasn't right to bury him somewhere he hadn't lived.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your sweet cat this past week. I can only imagine how devastated you must feel, and how empty and lonely your home must seem without the physical presence of your companion there with you.

You say you're struggling with whether to have your cat's body cremated, for fear that doing so will somehow prevent his spirit and body to be renewed in the afterlife. Of course that is a matter of religious faith or spiritual belief which I am not qualified to answer for you. I can tell you that, if you do decide to have your cat cremated, your being present for the cremation is the best way to make certain that the cremains that are returned to you really are those of your cat. You can also take comfort in knowing that your kitty's cremated remains will be with you always.

I will share with you that several years ago, when my own beloved Muffin (an adorable cockapoo) was hit by a car and had to be euthanized, I had no idea what to do with his body either. We ended up burying his body in our backyard in New Jersey -- but of course the time eventually came when we moved to another state, and I cannot tell you how difficult it was for us to leave his grave behind.

Just as it was for you and your cat, when this happened to our beloved dog it came right out of the blue. We were totally unprepared to even think about our dog as dead, much less to know what to do with his body. So we did what made sense to us at the time. Over time, this traumatic experience led me to create the online course, A Different Grief: Coping with Pet Loss, which emphasizes preparing in advance for the loss of a pet, and includes detailed information on arranging after-death care for companion animals.

I want animal lovers like myself to recognize that sooner or later they will lose their animals to death (after all, their life span is far shorter than our own). I want them to know that they are responsible for deciding what to do with their animals' remains after death, and they ought not to wait until they are in the throes of overwhelming grief to decide what they want to do with their cherished animals after they die, when they are not in the best position or frame of mind to make such difficult and unpleasant decisions. See the Memorializing A Pet page on my Grief Healing website for links to dozens of sites that offer some wonderful and creative ways of remembering your precious animal companion. You are limited only by your own imagination.

I hope that in time you will come to see that regardless of what you decide to do with your pet's remains, the love and the bond that you have with him will be with you always, and the memories you have of his life with you will remain in your heart forever, just as long as you choose to keep those precious memories alive.

I don't think there are any right or wrong decisions here - you simply have to do the best you can with the information you have available to you at the time, given your own unique circumstances and resources. And you do what you think you can live with later. Based on those criteria, it seems to me that your decision to have your cat's body cremated is a very sensible one.

I hope what I've said is helpful to you. Regardless of what you decide to do, though, please know that I am thinking of you.

Note to other readers: If you are faced with making end-of-life decisions for your own companion animal, I strongly encourage you to learn what your after-death-care options are before your animal’s death. (See links to the related articles, below.) When you’re struggling to cope with the pain and trauma of loss, you’re not in the best position to ask intelligent questions and make an informed, well-thought-out decision about body care. Make sure that your choices are based on your own values and beliefs, and that they meet your emotional needs and financial requirements.

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