Monday, November 27, 2017

Pet Loss: Delayed Grief

[Reviewed and updated June 12, 2022]

A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.
 ~ Alfred Tennyson

A reader writes: Hi, I found your website and thought that maybe you could explain something to me. I am 32 years old. I am married with two wonderful small children. I have a great life. I just found out from my parents that my rabbit, Precious, who died 13 years ago, did not pass away the way I had been told.
I was 10 when she came home to us. She was the most amazing animal I could imagine. Anyone who met her could not believe that she was a rabbit! A rabbit with personality, a rabbit that could be a best friend. There's not one person who met her who didn't appreciate who she was. Anyway, I went away to university when I was 19 (obviously she was 9 at the time - very old for a rabbit). I came home for a visit and she had aged so much in just one month. She was so different. She could barely keep her balance (which is odd since rabbits don't exactly walk far from the ground). I knew something wasn't right, but I was too immature to realize that her life was coming to an end. The next time I came home my parents told me she died peacefully in her favorite place. I believed them.

Just the other day, for some reason I began thinking about her...maybe because we are experiencing a significant amount of stress in our professional lives lately. Anyway, something did not sit right with me about my parents’ explanation of her death. I asked them about it again, and they had to tell me the truth. She had suffered a great deal. She was in severe pain. She was moaning constantly and had gone blind (all within a matter of 2-3 weeks from when I last saw her). My parents had no choice but to put her to sleep. Now, I completely agree with them. It was the only choice. It would have been a crime to let her continue suffering. However, what I can't get over is that they brought her to the vet and didn't have the strength to stay with her during the procedure. She was alone. I had no idea what was happening so I had no opportunity to say good-bye. Basically, her suffering, the fact that I wasn't given the opportunity to be there, and that she was alone without her family is driving me crazy. I have cried so many tears over the last few days. It's as if she died yesterday. What in the world is wrong with me?! How do I get over this? Any advice you can give would be very much appreciated.

My response: I’m so sorry to learn about the loss of your rabbit, Precious, 13 years ago. I can assure you that what you are feeling is understandable under the circumstances you describe, and that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling as you do. Let me try to explain.

I believe what you’re experiencing is a delayed grief reaction, triggered in the present by whatever may be reminding you of your rabbit's death. Grief is strange that way — when we don’t deal fully with the feelings of grief at the time we lose someone or something we dearly love, those feelings don’t go anywhere — they just lie dormant, waiting to be dealt with at a later time — and sometimes, as in your case, it happens years later, and when we least expect it.

For whatever reason, something triggered your memories of that time in your life and started you thinking about your rabbit’s death. Finding out now that your parents were less than honest with you about the circumstances of her death compounds your reaction. Think about what would happen to the trust your children have in you if one day they discovered that you distorted the truth or lied to them about something this important. Even though you’re an adult now and are willing to give your parents the benefit of the doubt, on some level you may still feel somewhat betrayed and angry with them about the way they handled this, and you may even wonder whether there is anything else they kept from you. That’s why it’s so important to be open and honest with children when a pet is terminally ill, death is pending and euthanasia is necessary.

Choosing to euthanize a cherished companion animal is difficult enough for any adult who is faced with such a horrible decision. What’s even harder for many parents is finding a way to help their children understand and accept the fact that the time has come to help the pet to die. In an effort to overprotect their children from grief, they sometimes make the mistake of overlooking, minimizing or avoiding altogether the pain caused by the death of a family pet. Sadly, in so doing they will have missed a valuable opportunity to teach their children a very powerful lesson in coping with the painful reality of death.

I imagine that if you were like most children, the relationship you had with Precious was unique and irreplaceable. Understand that pet loss can be very traumatic to a child or an adolescent, depending on the important role the pet played in the child’s life: companion, friend, admirer, playmate, defender, love object, sibling, confidante. When that bond is broken, the pain can be deep and enduring, and the trauma can result in feelings of insecurity, anxiety, anger, guilt, helplessness, distrust and fear.

We now believe that parents should never euthanize a family pet without telling their children first, even if the children are away from home. Children need help in understanding why the decision has to be made and a feeling that they’ve participated in making it. They also need an opportunity to say goodbye and make the most of whatever time they may have left with the pet. Nowadays we also encourage the whole family’s direct involvement in the pet’s euthanasia, letting children and adults be present if they so choose. As you already know, the reality of being present for your rabbit’s peaceful death would have been far less traumatic to you than your terrible fantasy of it. Had your parents known any better, they might have planned more carefully how Precious’s euthanasia was presented and conducted, and you could have been helped to cope more effectively with this very difficult life experience.

I don’t know your parents, but chances are that they were doing the best they could with the information and the options the veterinarian made available to them at the time. At the very least, I suspect they were motivated out of a sincere desire to protect you. I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive them, take whatever lessons you can learn from your own sad experience, and resolve to handle such things differently with your own children.

If that is not enough, I also encourage you to find someone to talk to about this, whether it’s a friend who understands your attachment to Precious, a pet loss support group, a chat room on the Internet or someone on the other end of a telephone helpline (see, for example, Helplines, Message Boards, Chats.) I also suggest you find and read one of the many excellent books on pet loss. Grieving is hard work, and you shouldn’t be doing it alone.

Please know that I’m thinking of you, and let me know how you’re doing.

Afterword: Dear Marty, thank you so much for your response. You gave me a lot of food for thought. I will definitely visit the sites you listed. I guess, once again, I will need time to heal the wounds and come to terms with the reality that surrounded Precious's death. Again, your kind words and understanding of my feelings help enormously.

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Related: © by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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