The right time? Measuring your dying pet’s quality of life

As pet carers, the decision about whether or not to have a precious animal companion euthanised (or ‘put to sleep’) is one that many of us will have to face. If you have a pet that’s terminally ill or very old, the chances are that the topic of euthanasia will be on your mind.

You may have a lot of questions.

Should you let nature take its course? Is euthanasia preferable to a ‘natural’ death? Will you know when it’s the right time?

The question of timing can be one of the most daunting – we don’t want to let go too soon but what if we leave it too late?

People will often tell you that you’ll know when it’s the ‘right’ time to euthanise a pet but the reality is that it isn’t always obvious, especially if your pet is experiencing a slow decline.

Quality of Life

The concept of a ‘quality of life’ recognises that life is made up of good and bad experiences but that there must be a balance between the two. This is particularly discussed in the context of animal welfare.

We all know that poorly animals can have good and bad days, just like humans, but many feel that when a tipping point has been reached and an animal has more bad experiences than good because of their health – and if there is no reasonable hope of recovery – then we have to ask whether there is still an acceptable quality of life.

Knowing this, experts have devised a number of different systems for measuring an animal’s quality of life.

It may sound dispassionate but some people find that these systems can help you to review whether or not your pet is suffering at a time when it’s hard to see clearly.

The right to five freedoms

One such system is the ‘Five Freedoms’. According to the Animal Humane Society, these are internationally accepted standards of care that affirm every living being’s right to humane treatment. These standards were developed by Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1965 and adapted by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians for companion animals in shelters. 

Although the Five Freedoms initially related to husbandry practices when keeping farm animals, they are a good starting point for assessing your pet’s quality of life.

1.      Freedom from hunger and thirst

Every animal should have access to species-appropriate food as well as fresh water.

We can use this freedom as a measure for quality of life.

Is your pet able to eat and drink? A good quality of life is often still possible with a change of diet, hand feeding and other adaptations. However, if your pet is no longer physically able to eat or drink, it may be a sign that their body is shutting down.

2.      Freedom from discomfort

Animals should have the right type of environment, including shelter and somewhere comfortable to rest.

If your pet is no longer able to rest without discomfort or move easily within their environment then this can be another sign that their quality of life is decreasing.

3.      Freedom from pain, injury or disease

The Five Freedoms state that animals should have freedom from pain, injury or disease, either by prevention or by rapid diagnosis and treatment.

But what happens when you can’t cure an animal because they are hurt beyond repair or terminally ill?

In most cases, it will mean looking at the other four freedoms. Is your pet still able to eat and drink? Can they sleep without being in pain or move around? Are they calm and relaxed?

4.      Freedom to express normal behaviour

Freedom Four says that an animal should be able to stand up, lie down, turn round, stretch their limbs and groom all parts of the body.

You may feel that ‘normal behaviour’ covers other things that your pet enjoys or needs, like being able to go to the toilet or showing interest in their surroundings.

If your pet is no longer able to express their usual behaviour then it’s important to discuss this with your vet, as well as your pet’s immediate family.

5.      Freedom from fear and distress

Freedom Five is about your pet’s state of mind as well as their physical state. Of course, it’s hard for an animal to tell us if they feel frightened or afraid but you know them better than anyone. If you feel that your pet is distressed and that their condition is unlikely to improve, you might want to consider euthanasia.

‘Quality of life’ questionnaire

Even with the Five Freedoms, it can be difficult to determine your pet’s quality of life. What if they’re struggling with one of the five freedoms but seem okay in the other four areas so far?

Another challenge that many of us face is when the animal’s quality of life deteriorates slowly or you’re presented with a diagnosis that tells you they will decline rapidly over a short period of time in the near future.

In all of these scenarios, when is the right time to consider euthanasia?

One helpful tool is a quality of life (QOL) questionnaire. This can help you to define your pet’s quality of life today and then monitor how it progresses.

A good example is on the Cinque Port Vets website.

As you can see, this questionnaire asks you to score your pet’s wellbeing in six key areas (score 2 for normal/good, 1 for poor/reduced or 0 for none):

  1. Mobility (Good/poor/bare minimum)
  2. Appetite (Good/poor/none – vomiting/nausea)
  3. Hydration/thirst (Good/poor/requires oral or intravenous (i.e. a drip) fluids)
  4. Interaction/attitude (Normal/reduced/none – only contact is when you instigate it)
  5. Toilet habits (Normal/reduced/little to no output)
  6. Favourite things (Normal/reduced/no interest)

You could also add categories for your pet’s heart rate, blood sugar or other measurable factors and score in quarter and half points if you notice a slight increase or decrease in any of the categories.

There are, of course, various other QOL scales/scoring systems. An online search will lead you to others to consider until you find one that works for you and your pet.

What the Quality of Life (QOL) score means

When using a questionnaire like this, it’s advised that you think about what the different overall scores mean to you.

For example, you could decide that a score of:

  • 12-9 means everything is OK for now – your pet is still enjoying their life
  • 8-6 means that your pet may need support from you or the vet – this could mean that their treatment needs adjusting to increase the score
  • 5-0 means that your pet’s quality of life is significantly lower than you would want it to be and it might be time to consider euthanasia

It can be helpful to have this sort of baseline in your head. That way, you can remind yourself that “Today’s QOL score is eight. It’s not time yet” or “His score is just four now, which means he’s got little to no normality in most aspects of his life”.

If you don’t have to make an immediate decision, you will probably find it helpful to track your pet’s QOL score on a daily basis.

With an elderly or terminally ill pet, it can be hard to pinpoint a clear downward turn in your pet’s quality of life as there is often a mixture of good and bad days.

You may find, however, that when you track the QOL score every day, you suddenly notice that you’ve hit a week when there were more fours and fives than sixes. Knowing this, you might feel that a tipping point has been reached.

Trust your instincts and intentions

In many ways, euthanasia as an option for our pets is both a gift and a curse. The ability to prevent unnecessary suffering when there is no hope for recovery is often described as the ‘last kindness’ that we can give our pets. Understandably though, it’s a decision that weighs heavy on pet carers.

Trust that your vet will advocate for your pet and will only suggest euthanasia when all other reasonable options have been exhausted.

While finding ways to measure your pet’s quality of life can be useful, knowing the ‘right’ time usually comes down to trusting your instincts and good intentions towards your pet. You know them better than anyone and you only want what’s best for them.

Different people make different decisions for their pets but that doesn’t make either person wrong.

Whatever you face right now, know that you’re not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

The Ball in the Box and other grief analogies

As hard as we try, grief can be a difficult emotion to explain or understand. It can wear different faces and emotions for everyone and it’s impossible to pin down to a timeline. If you’re experiencing grief, this knowledge can be overwhelming.

How can you live with something that you can’t define? How can you ask for support or give others some insight into how you feel?

These questions get one thinking about the analogies and metaphors we use to describe grief and how they can give other people a glimpse into our feelings, as well as help us understand our own all-consuming thoughts and emotions.

The Ball in the Box

On social media last year, a lovely lady called Lauren Herschel tweeted a thread about the ‘Ball in the Box’ analogy that her doctor told her to explain grief.

In the thread, she said, “So grief is like this. There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button”.

“In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without the ball hitting the pain button. It rattles around on its own in there and hits the button over and over. You can’t control it – it just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting.”

“Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less, but when it does, it hurts just as much. It’s better because you can function day to day more easily. But the downside is that the ball randomly hits the button when you least expect it.”

“For most people, the ball never really goes away. It might hit less and less and you have more time to recover between hits, unlike when the ball was still giant.”

A shorthand to explain your feelings

The ‘Ball in the Box’ analogy makes sense to most of us who have experienced grief. 

It explains why, in the face of a new loss, we might still experience pain for a past loss. In addition to the new giant ball, the older grief ball is still bouncing around, hitting the pain button occasionally, especially when it’s bouncing against the giant ball that’s occupying so much of the box.

One of the reasons that this analogy is so powerful is because it’s visual in nature and gives you a clear shorthand to explain how you’re feeling. If you share this analogy with your support network, you can follow it up with statements like, “The ball is really big today and has been hitting the pain button constantly” and people will instantly recognise what you mean.

Grief comes in waves

Eight years ago, a Reddit user posted their analogy for grief and it’s been an amazing source of comfort to thousands ever since.

The essence of the analogy is to imagine that you’ve been caught up in a shipwreck caused by a storm that came from nowhere.

When the shipwreck first happens, you’re drowning, surrounded by wreckage and pulling your head above the water, one gasp at a time.

Everywhere you look, you see reminders of the beautiful ship that carried you as you struggle to understand that it’s gone.

All you can do is float and hang on to a piece of the wreckage – whether that’s a memory, an object or another person – while you try to stay alive.

At first, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash down on you with force. They come every few seconds, barely letting you catch a breath. You can’t think of anything but hanging on for survival while wave after wave hits.

After a while though (weeks or months perhaps), you notice that – although the waves are still 100 feet tall and wipe you out when they hit – they don’t come quite as often. You begin to be able to take in what happened during the storm and do more than breathe between each wave. The unpredictability is hard because a wave could hit at any time but, with the sea a bit calmer, you’re able to think about more than just hanging on.

Life after the storm

The analogy says that somewhere down the line (and the timeframe is different for everyone), you’ll notice that the waves are becoming smaller. They’re 80 feet tall, then 50 feet and you can often see them coming before they hit.

You begin to prepare yourself for the impact of the wave and find an inner strength that tells you that you’ll come out the other side because you always have before. You may be struggling to breathe, choked and hanging on to a tiny piece of wreckage once again but you’ll survive and the wave will pass.

Sadly, you may find yourself in other shipwrecks in the future. When you do, you’ll hang on for dear life again and learn to survive.

In this analogy, the sea is never completely calm. There are always waves, although they may be small. In a way, you wouldn’t want the waves to completely disappear because they remind you of the beautiful ships that sailed them and the adventures you shared before and after each storm.

Stranger in a strange land

Other people describe grief as feeling like you’ve landed in a foreign country. In this analogy, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. 

Like shopping in a foreign supermarket, you inadvertently buy the wrong things or the right things in the wrong quantities. You mark different days on your calendar to everyone living around you. 

You’re constantly exhausted from trying to learn a new language to communicate your sense of loss (or you don’t speak because you don’t know how to say what you want to say).

The landscape around you is strange and it changes without warning. Things that didn’t harm you before – a collar, a food bowl – cut you deep inside. You can see your friends and family but they’re across an invisible border and you feel completely alone. You can watch the old, familiar, ‘normal’ things from a distance but you’re set apart from them.

The currency in this foreign land is unfamiliar too. Money has little value but kindness and compassion are priceless.

You wonder how you’ll survive in this new place.

But, with time, you begin to make a new life in the foreign land you now inhabit. You realise other people live there too. You learn the language, get used to the food and accept that life is different but still worth living. You adapt and grow. You didn’t choose to come to this land but you can make the best of where life has taken you.

Sometimes, you’ll feel guilty; you’ll worry that you’ve betrayed your homeland by learning to adjust to this new place. But, in your heart, you know you couldn’t stay rooted to the spot, eternally reaching for a shore you couldn’t touch. You’ll remember your homeland forever but the foreign land will lose its strangeness as you learn its ways.

Grief changes with time

These three analogies are an important reminder that grief changes with time. It never fully disappears and still hurts sometimes but we learn to adapt to its presence.

If you feel like you’re being hit by 100-foot waves right now or if your pain button is constantly being pressed, we hope these analogies will give you some comfort that there are better days ahead.

You may be a stranger in this foreign land of grief but reach out a hand and there are people in the fog who are walking the same path.

You’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Anxiety after pet loss

People often talk about the emotions of grief as being sadness, guilt, anger and denial but anxiety after pet loss is also a common response. You’re not alone if it’s something you’ve been experiencing since losing a precious pet.

What is anxiety?

The National Health Service defines anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or severe”.

Anxiety causes a range of physical and mental symptoms that can include:

  • Feeling restless or worried (or as if something terrible is about to happen)
  • Trouble concentrating or sleeping
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Panic attacks

Only you know how anxiety affects you but, whatever your symptoms, it can be very distressing.

What causes anxiety?

Like all of our feelings, including guilt and anger, anxiety plays an important role in keeping us safe.

The best way to describe anxiety is as an internal alarm system that makes us hyperalert to danger. Anxiety achieves this by giving us a boost of adrenaline designed to raise our heart rate and send more oxygen to our limbs so that we’re better able to run away if we need to.

You’ve probably heard this described as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Thanks to anxiety, we’re able to fight off a threat if we must or run for our lives in the opposite direction. It also makes us hypervigilant about spotting threats in the first place.

The challenges of anxiety

One of the problems with anxiety is that our body often triggers the fight or flight response when we’re just going about our daily business.

Research shows that some people are more prone to anxiety than others. Genetics, a chemical imbalance of serotonin and noradrenaline, health issues, past trauma and other factors can all provide a catalyst for anxiety-related disorders.

However, we also know that anxiety is a common response to a recent traumatic event, such as the loss of a much-loved pet or human family member. This is usually referred to as ‘situational anxiety’ because it can be pinned down to a specific change of situation as the trigger.

In many ways, anxiety is a logical reaction to bereavement. Something terrible has happened, something that has knocked you for six both mentally and physically. Your body recognises this and, out of pure instinct, primes itself to tackle or escape the threat.

Of course, the frustration is that the death of a loved one isn’t something we can beat or outrun.

This is where anxiety becomes redundant, only our body doesn’t know that.

Anxiety and complicated grief

When researching this blog, the general advice was that anxiety is typical within the first six months of bereavement. Over time, you will hopefully find that your adrenaline levels reduce and you can begin finding a new ‘normal’ for life without your pet.

Some experts say that if you’re experiencing anxiety more than six months after your loss or your anxiety has become severe enough to negatively affect your life, then you may be suffering from complicated grief.

Sadly, anxiety and complicated grief can be intertwined. Research shows that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to suffer from complicated grief after a bereavement. Equally, people who suffer from complicated grief are more likely to develop anxiety or an anxiety-related disorder.

This is only one school of thought. Other experts say that the six-month mark is often when anxiety first appears. Typically because it takes this long to really acknowledge the permanence of a bereavement and then begin processing it.

Anxiety lives in the future

Certainly, many people say that they felt they were coping with their loss when their anxiety suddenly kicked in.

There are a few reasons for this.

One of the main reasons is that the time immediately after a loss is typically very busy, not least with practical issues such as speaking to the vet about what will be done with your pet’s remains. You may also receive visits from friends and family or need to spend time focusing on your remaining pets or other family members and their grief.

It can take weeks or even months for the reality of a loss to sink in – this is when anxiety rears its head.

The death of a pet can spark all sorts of thoughts about the future.

We might think about our own mortality or how we’re going to cope without our pet. We could start worrying about our other animals or loved ones. It may serve us to pre-empt potential accidents or circumstances similar to those we associate with our pet’s death. We may picture the future alone or decide that we won’t ever be able to have another pet because of the pain of losing them.

In this way, anxiety is very much an emotion that lives in the future. It has the function of preparing us for an emergency that hasn’t happened yet. This makes it incredibly hard to manage because we’re dealing with things that may never come to pass or, in the case of mortality, something we can’t ever prevent.

Coping with anxiety after pet loss

Bereavement is a very personal journey with no set timeline.

The six-month mark referred to for complicated grief is just perhaps a sensible point to reflect on how you are coping with your loss.

If your feelings of grief, sadness, anger or anxiety are impacting on your ability to work, eat, sleep, concentrate or spend time with your loved ones then you may need support.

The following tips may also help you cope:

  1. Remind yourself that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that there is no time limit on your feelings.
  2. Learn a little about anxiety. You may find it helpful to understand why you’re experiencing specific symptoms, e.g. changes in adrenaline, etc. as this can help you to be objective about the sensations and thoughts you’re experiencing.
  3. Examine your grief. Are you aware of blocking particular thoughts or feelings when they come to you? Anxiety can be a bit like pressure boiling up from suppressed emotions.
  4. Make amends. Guilt is one of the toughest emotions associated with grief. You may feel you betrayed your pet by having them put to sleep or that you neglected them by not being able to stop an accident. It isn’t too late to talk (or write) to your pet asking for their forgiveness. We’re not saying you’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven but we know that guilt can make it feel like you have.
  5. Explore your relationship with your pet. After a pet dies, it’s natural to focus on the circumstances of their death but your time together was about so much more. Write down some of your favourite memories, the times your pet made you laugh, the places you went together, the peaceful moments – these can help to lessen the feelings of anxiety. Also, it can be helpful to see the relationship as continuing, even if you don’t have any religious beliefs. Your pet may be gone but the love you feel for them is alive and strong within you.
  6. Even though you may not feel like it, prioritise healthy, nourishing meals.
  7. Try to give yourself time to sleep. If sleep is eluding you, try to give yourself plenty of downtime during which you can rest. This might mean binge-watching your favourite TV programme or listening to music – whatever works for you.
  8. Anxiety can make you want to retreat from the world. As tough as it is, please do try to reach out to your support system and let those close to you know how you’re feeling. Anxiety may tell you that you’re bothering others but you’re not. Remember, like depression, anxiety lies.
  9. It can be helpful to set boundaries with your friends and family. Let them know whether or not you want to talk about your loss.
  10. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how it feels to lose a pet. If you are struggling to get support from your loved ones, reach out to a support group instead. The Ralph Site’s Facebook group is an online community of people who understand pet loss grief.
  11. Reach out to a pet bereavement counsellor or therapist.
  12. If your anxiety is affecting the quality of your life, you may temporarily need to take medication that helps to control the symptoms so that you can focus on the points above. Please contact your GP.

Your anxiety will get better

As a society, we’re taught to push away our thoughts, fears and questions about death. After a pet dies or goes missing, we feel we’re expected to file away the loss and carry on. Anxiety has other ideas. It wants us to face our loss head-on.

If you need support, please reach out for it. Many of us need help when we’re grieving and that’s part of the human experience.

The good news is that, in most cases, anxiety brought on by a situational cause such as a bereavement will diminish over time.

It often takes a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy, self-care and grief processing to move forward but move forward you will.

You may find that the more you allow yourself to grieve and to explore the impact of your loss, the more you will see an improvement in your anxious thoughts and feelings.

Until that time, know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Coping with anniversaries and special days when a pet dies

There will always be difficult days when you’re mourning the loss of your beloved pet. Most people agree that coping with anniversaries and special days can be particularly tough.

Your pet’s birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of when you got them or when they passed away all tend to be challenging.

While these days will be etched firmly in your mind, many of these occasions will be personal to you and your family while people outside of your inner circle may be completely oblivious to their significance.

This can lead you to feel sad and angry that the world is moving on without your beloved companion.

You’re not alone if you find yourself struggling through a significant anniversary while feeling like no-one around you understands your feelings.

The anniversary of your pet’s passing

Many people say that the first anniversary of losing their pet is the most difficult. In fact, the ‘first’ anything after a bereavement can feel almost impossible to endure.

As the date draws near, it’s not unusual to find that your thoughts return to the weeks, days and hours leading up to the anniversary or occasion. This can be especially upsetting when you find yourself reliving your bereavement.

You may find that your thoughts are on a loop and that your grief feels more intense. This can be scary and confusing if you had previously felt like you were moving forward with your grief.

It isn’t always the first anniversary that’s tough though. Often we’re prepared to feel awful at this time and our friends and family may rally round to offer support. Sometimes, it can be a random number of years later that the anniversary knocks you sideways.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how you will feel. You may just need to hang on when a fresh wave of grief hits you unexpectedly.

Coping with ‘happy’ occasions

It is also hard to cope with usually happy occasions such as Christmas when you’re grieving for a pet.

People often feel like there’s pressure to be cheerful and put on a ‘brave face’ because it’s the expectation of the time of year.

Naturally, you may be worried about ruining the day for your friends and family, or cross if people close to you seem swept up in the annual Christmas cheer.

As with all aspects of grief, there’s no right or wrong to how you feel (or don’t feel). If possible, try to talk to the people around you about your thoughts and feelings so that they can understand more about your perspective.

Please don’t feel guilty if you decide to throw yourself into the Christmas spirit – that’s a normal reaction too.

Aftershocks and what triggers them

It helps to know that anniversaries and other special days often prompt bursts of grief known as ‘aftershocks’. This is when it feels as though you’re being confronted with your loved one’s death for the first time all over again.

Equally, a specific song, place, smell or time of year can unexpectedly catapult you back to the moment of your loss.

Try to remember that aftershocks are usually temporary. They’re also a natural part of the grieving process.

Facebook Memories

A very modern issue is suddenly experiencing an aftershock in response to a Facebook memory. You may have happily shared pictures and moments with your pet throughout their life but it can be quite a shock to have a memory pop up in your timeline without warning.

You may expect memories to appear on anniversaries and special days but this can still rub salt in your already painful wound.

For some people, Facebook memories eventually take on a comforting reminder of all the good times they shared with their pet.

If you’re finding the regular pictures of happier times too hard to bear at the moment though, there are a number of things you can do to ‘mute’ Facebook memories for the time being.

Anniversaries play an important role in managing grief

It is completely ‘normal’ (if such a thing exists!) to find anniversaries and special occasions difficult.

Each one marks a significant step in finding your way into your new every day without your pet. It’s a natural instinct to look back at what we had before we are able to let go. It’s also natural to take a few steps backwards to revisit what you’ve lost.

In turn, it’s understandable that you might feel angry, disloyal or guilty about hitting another milestone without your animal friend. If only we could turn back time!

Letting go is not about forgetting

One of the most crucial realisations you can make is that letting go isn’t the same thing as forgetting.

You will never forget your pet. You will always love them and carry that love with you for the rest of your life.

Believe it or not but, with time, anniversaries and special days may become positive milestones that give testimony to the fact that your pet lived and mattered. You may find that you’re able to remember your pet’s birthday or your Christmas traditions with a smile. Anniversaries may become waypoints to mark out the journey through part of your life that you shared with your pet.

Whatever your feelings, try to take care of yourself and remember that there is no right or wrong way to approach anniversaries.

Look at ways you can celebrate your pet’s life and carry forward your memories.

Ask your friends and family for support, if you can. If not, reach out to people in The Ralph Site’s closed Facebook group as there’s bound to be someone who understands how you feel.

Just know that you’re not alone.

Until next time,

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Helping your teen cope with the death of a pet

On the main Ralph Site, there’s information about helping children of all ages cope with the loss of a pet. In this week’s blog though, we’d like to talk a bit more about helping teens cope with pet bereavement.

Why focus on teens, in particular?

Pets often play a very specific role for teenagers.

Pets are a link to childhood for teens

If you’ve had your pet for a long time, your teen may not know or remember life without them. As long as your teen has existed, your pet has been there too, as much a part of the fabric of life as parents, siblings and grandparents.

This is especially important during the transition from childhood into adulthood when teenagers live through a period of constant change. This includes their schools, relationships, emotions and bodies.

In the middle of all of this, a pet is a consistent, non-judgmental presence. They’re a link back to childhood but they’re firmly rooted in the present too.

A pet doesn’t care how your teen is doing at school or whether they’re developing acne, falling in love for the first time or revising for exams. They don’t ask questions at the end of a long school day.

To your teen, these qualities will sometimes make a pet the most appealing member of the family.

So when a pet dies, it’s understandable that this can have a specific significance for a teenager.

Your grieving teen

For many parents, knowing how to best support a grieving teenager can be challenging. Some teens show a total lack of concern about a pet who has died (at least, on the surface) while others exhibit extreme reactions.

Some teens want to talk about their grief, while others find talking difficult.

As we know from our own experiences as adults, grief can present itself in a multitude of ways from tears and sadness to anger and frustration, and most emotions in between.

It can be especially hard to know how to support a teen when you’re grieving too. This can make emotions run high, especially if you and your teen feel angry at the same time or if you’re experiencing your grief in very different ways.

To help you, we’ve put together a list of pointers for helping your teen cope with the death of a pet.

Seven ways you can help

1. Respect your teen’s need to talk to their friends

Your teen may prefer to talk to their friends about their bereavement.

Peers play a big role in the emotional and social development of teenagers and you may not be the first person they choose to talk to. They may also worry about upsetting you by sharing their feelings.

It’s important to accept that your son or daughter may be more comfortable talking to their friends. But it’s equally important to let them know that you’re there if they need you.

2. Be open about your own grief

As a parent or carer of a teen, your first inclination may be that you should hide your own sadness to protect them.

In actual fact, letting your teen see that you’re grieving can be incredibly supportive and empowering. It lets the young person know that their feelings are natural, normal and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

You can also show that grief isn’t an event but a process and that there will be good and bad days.

3. Validate your teen’s feelings

As with anyone who’s grieving, it’s important to validate your teen’s feelings, whether or not they reflect your own. Your teen is a person in their own right and the relationship they had with your pet is unique to them.

Let them know that you recognise that they’re going through a difficult experience. Name any feelings you see. Recognise how much they miss their pet.

You don’t need to offer solutions but they will appreciate an accepting presence (even if they don’t tell you!)

4. Give your teen time

When we see someone we love suffering, it can be unbearable. In the case of pet bereavement, parents often feel that they can live with their own grief but that they just want their teen to move on and feel better.

Sadly, grief can’t be rushed.

Let your teen know that there is no time limit on grief. This will help them in the face of unhelpful comments from other people such as, “Are you still upset about your cat?” or “It’s only a dog”.

One of the best things we can do for anyone who is grieving is to let them feel and talk about their bereavement without restrictions.

5. Suggest ways your teen can memorialise your pet

Some people, teens or otherwise, find it comforting to memorialise a lost pet. This can be a great way to bring happy memories into focus.

You could ask your teen whether they would like to make a photo book, create a piece of artwork, plant some flowers or even make a donation to an animal charity in memory of their lost friend.

If it’s not something they want to do for themselves, you might be able to encourage them to help you.

6. Enlist help from your teen’s wider circle

If your son or daughter is having a tough time due to their grief, it’s a good idea to let other important people in their wider circle know what’s going on. This might be your teen’s class tutor, a trusted teacher or the group leader of their favourite activity.

7. Seek professional help, if necessary

Sometimes people need professional support to cope with bereavement. If you’re worried that your teen is really struggling then you might want to talk to them about phoning a pet bereavement helpline or seeing a counsellor.

Let your teen know that asking for help from a counsellor for emotional pain is just as important as seeing a doctor when our bodies are hurt.

Compassion and comfort

One of the most important things we can do for any teen who is grieving is to model compassion in how we treat them, ourselves and other bereaved family members when a pet dies.

Pets are so special because they embody acceptance, a quality that every teenager needs in their life. If we can show acceptance too, we can provide a safe space for our teens to learn how to live with grief.

You and your teen are not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team,
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support