Why we need to take grieving pet loss seriously

May, 2022

It’s taken a few weeks to write this. On Easter Monday, my beautiful 15-year-old Golden Retriever, Benny, collapsed and died. It’s been two weeks of trying to get my thoughts together and it seemed ridiculous to write about fleas or something equally as not important to me right now. So with Benny's death, this is what I’ve learnt, and I can only hope there’s someone out there who gets what I’m about to write.

The first is the guilt that the person who makes that call to euthanise has to carry. We all wish our pets would just die in their sleep, but it’s rarely the case. Most of the time there’s this prolonged time of suffering as the body starts to shut down. And as an owner you just want it to stop because it’s so painful to watch our pets go through that. But when you make that call to put them to sleep there’s this nagging guilt - Is this right? Should I try harder? Could I have done more? Did I give them a good-enough life? Will they blame me if I do this? Did I tell them I loved them enough? It’s almost easier to not make any decision at all but the truth is, letting them go, and being brave enough to make that decision for them, is one very final but enormous act of love.

What I wanted for Benny was to get him to the hospital so I could fix whatever was going wrong. But I didn’t have the heart to move him from his bed in my lounge room. I knew that deep down I would have been taking him to the hospital for ME - so I could have a diagnosis and get some closure. I knew he didn’t want to go to hospital. He wanted me to let him go. And letting him go without a diagnosis is something that I have to live with. He asked me to go and he was ready, and nothing I did was going to stop that.

We were with my Mum (thank goodness) and she said to me at the time, “you know you aren’t God, Kate”. And of course I know I’m not God- but at the time it really hit me. Because I like to think of myself as the person that can fix almost anything. That’s what I do as a vet (and I am God, darn it). Turns out I’m actually not God. It was the first time I realised how little control I really had - a pill that’s hard to swallow as someone that’s committed their entire life to saving lives.

The other thing I’ve learnt is just how painful losing a pet can be. Now look, I’ve had a lot of pets in my life that I’ve loved and lost. But there was only one Benny. You know that one special one that you have this really extraordinary bond with. That was him. I don’t even quite know how to live without him.

Losing my other pets was painful but losing Benny felt like losing my father all over again. And the grief has been ‘take my breath away’ overwhelming. And as a society, we don’t really acknowledge pet death or give them the importance that they deserve. There’s no compassionate leave for a pet death.

People that don’t really get it tell me, “He was old and you gave him a good life”. I smile and nod but feel like screaming at them, “He was my best friend and he’s gone, I wanted longer and now nothing will ever be ok”. But that would be socially unacceptable, so I don’t.

The people that have been there do “get it” (thank goodness) and I have been so blown away with the love, thoughts and support of so many people. I didn’t know there was so many people that knew how much I loved him - and that’s really something. My home still looks like a florist and I wish I could have thanked people better.

If there is one thing Benny has done for me all the way through his life - that was to teach me. He taught me how to be a better human as well as be a better veterinarian. I wish I could thank him and I still just hope that he knew how loved he was.

Why would we allow ourselves to love so hard when we all know we are going to lose them? It’s like driving recklessly and deliberately into a brick wall. Because for whatever the end result, the trip was 100% worth the crash.

Benjamin Button - I’ll never forget you and wherever you are, I hope there are cheeseburgers there.

Love, Dr Kate

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