The death of a beloved pet brings with it a complicated set of emotions: sadness and grief, of course, but also, in the case of euthanasia, guilt and anxiety that you’ve done the right thing, and regret if you feel you haven’t acted quickly enough to spare your pet some suffering. Add to that the anger at those who, even if they mean well, minimize or marginalize your grief because your pet is “just” an animal, and the plain old anticipatory grief that comes with watching your pup decline as he or she ages, and it’s a recipe for a hot stew of confusion. That’s where Christiana Saia comes in. A certified grief coach with Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, Saia helps hold space for pet parents who are grieving the loss of their beloved pets. I’m so grateful to have been able to chat with her as I navigate this tricky terrain both on my own and with my clients.
The Baroo: Thank you so much for jumping on this chat with me. As I mentioned, I'm doing a few episodes on pet loss and pet grief. My own guy, Chance, is 15 and he's doing great, but I find myself getting a little anxious. Obviously, he's slowing down, and I see the signs of aging. I also care for so many other dogs, and most of them are in their senior years at this point. So I thought it would be good to kind of explore the topic of grief around the loss of our pets. You are a professional grief coach with Lap of Love, which is a fantastic company. I'd love to know a little bit about what it is that makes you different from a grief counselor or a grief therapist, and also a little bit about your history. What inspired you or was the calling for you to do this wonderful work?
Christina Saia: I'm so glad that you're creating the space to have this discussion, because I think that in general society doesn't really hold space for grief, but especially pet loss. As I have gone through life and experienced grief a little bit more, I've recognized that there’s no fixing grief, there's just holding space and allowing people to feel what they need to feel, and being there with them in it.
TB: So when you are holding space for people who are dealing with the loss of a beloved pet, what are some of the biggest reasons that people seek your help?
CS: As grief coaches, we really are here to walk through this journey, hold the hands of people who have lost a pet and just validate what they're going through, help them have a deeper understanding of the grief experience, and maybe suggest some coping techniques or mechanisms to help get through the grief and honor their loved one. Because pet loss is what is called a disenfranchised grief. And that is a grief that goes unacknowledged and invalidated by society. Anybody who's lost a pet can probably say that they've had this experience of somebody saying, “It was just a pet, just get another one, are you over it by now?” But our pets are our closest family members, right? They see our most authentic selves; they're forgiving, they love us every day.
It's a profound love, so there's going to be that profound grief. As grief coaches we are educated in grief and pet loss, and just here to hold their hands through it. As far as the difference between a grief coach and grief counselor, if there are things that are blocking that journey, they might need somebody who has the licensure and training to help them such as somebody trying to cope with symptoms of mental illness [or] trauma. If there is trauma that is coming up, that is blocking somebody from being present with their grief, then we are trauma informed, but it will be better supported by somebody who specializes in that, and can help them differentiate the trauma and the grief and where they intertwine. And, especially if somebody is in crisis, or having thoughts of self harm, that is out of our scope. We want to acknowledge our limitations, so in that case, we would refer them to a crisis hotline, or something like that.
TB: So can we talk about some of the phases of grief that one might go through, or one might expect to go through?
CS: Yes, I'm so glad that you brought this up. Because I think that this is a misconception about grief. We've all heard of the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance, right? But grief is anything but linear; it's messy. It's all over the place. And sometimes we may feel anger, and then we may feel some bargaining and we may feel anger again. We revisit a lot of our emotions that sometimes we thought we were done with. And sometimes we're feeling denial, anger, guilt, all at once. And it's not just a phase, it's an entire experience, and there is no roadmap, unfortunately, because everybody has a different journey. So it's just allowing yourself to feel what you need to feel and knowing that you may not feel that anger, you may not feel that guilt, so there is no guarantee that you will or will not go through the preconceived phases of grief.
TB: Is there a common reason people feel angry, or a common reason people feel guilty around the loss of a pet?
CS: I can't speak universally. But some of the most common things that I've found is with anger, especially, is there's this sense of injustice. Right? There's this sense of somebody that I love has been taken from me, especially if it's too soon. And especially when I have done everything that I can to try to keep them here with me and try to try to make sure that they had a great life and that they were healthy. It goes back to when we were children and something that we loved was just taken from us without explanation. What happened? We protested, right? We had a tantrum. And so that anger is valid. And it's important to remember that anger is often a secondary emotion. So if we dig a little bit deeper, usually there's something underneath it. It could be fear of loneliness, it could be loneliness itself. It could be, you know, the sadness. And so it’s important to validate anger and then to dig a little bit deeper with it as well.
As far as guilt goes, I think that guilt is really the rule and not the exception when it comes to pet loss. Grief in general, but especially pet loss. Guilt is a way for us to feel like we have some control over the situation. Because nothing makes you feel more out of control than death. Once somebody has died, there’s nothing we can do. And as human beings, our psyche doesn't like that. Our psyche wants to feel like we have control over our lives, that there is an order to things that if we do this, then this will happen. That is really difficult for us to grapple with. So the guilt oftentimes is finding ways that we could have had control, where “if I would have just done this, then this wouldn't have happened.” That's one of the main reasons but added on to that is our extreme sense of responsibility that we have for our pets. We're responsible for every aspect of their life, and we do the best that we can with the information that we have the time and our abilities to do so. But ultimately, there's a 100% death rate amongst living beings. It's pretty much guaranteed. So I just think it's so important to remember, especially when we're feeling that guilt, that death is not a failure. That it is part of this natural life cycle. And sometimes our loved ones are taken from us sooner than we want to. But death is not a failure. And it's important to remember that your pet dying does not mean you failed them in any way, shape, or form.
TB: I think a lot of the guilt is that we have to make some tough choices when it comes to the end of life, because I think very few people’s dogs pass away peacefully on their own.
CS: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. Euthanasia is just the Grand Slam of guilt, really, and it doesn't matter when we did it, if we did it too soon or too late. What I will say is that it's going to feel too soon, oftentimes, until it feels too late. And there's guilt associated with both sides of that. And just to recognize that questioning is part of the grieving process. The way that I see it, personally, is that it makes sense to me that it is part of our responsibility, if we're able, to offer them a peaceful transition, surrounded by love. We can't always do that, because life is what happens when we're busy making plans. But if your pet is geriatric or terminally ill just try to have a plan for what you want to do and how you want to say goodbye. So that as time passes, you can have those conversations with yourself that are really difficult to have. Anticipatory grief can actually relieve some of that anxiety, although it seems counterproductive.
TB: What are some of the things to look for in terms of anticipatory grief? What are some of the things that we might be able to identify as some of the feelings that we're having?
CS: It really can happen the moment that you realize that you have this beautiful little creature and that they're gonna die. One of my colleagues told me the other day that the moment they adopted their pet, they started feeling that, you know, it really can happen. But the love will last forever. The grief is going to be there too, forever. It evolves and it becomes part of our story. But the love that we grieve is in direct correlation to how much we love. As far as anticipatory grief goes, one really common aspect of it, like I mentioned, is that anxiety of just living in the future and having a hard time being present with your pet and enjoying today. So that's really common, the fear of what life is going to look like without them here. The idea of what life is going to look like without this anchor is scary, right? And sadness, of course – just being sad and recognizing it. Anticipatory grief is so normal, I think it just helps just to have a name for it. Just to know that what you're feeling it's a thing.
TB: Are there things that we could do after our pet passes and the daily routine changes? Like, my whole day kind of navigates around his walks and his feeding schedule, and all the things that he needs. Are there things that can ease that kind of shocking transition, or that loneliness that might come up during those times?
CS: Well, I do want to note that some people may be elated that they may not have to walk their dog, because caretaker burnout is real. It's important that people know that it's okay that you're enjoying a moment to breathe, and you don't have to wake up every four hours for medication. It doesn't take away from how much you love them. I always say, you know, when you've been a caretaker and your loved one has passed, the baton gets handed over. And it's your turn to put the same time, affection, energy, and love into caretaking yourself that you did for your loved one. As far as preparing, I want to say I don't think we're ever really prepared. Right? But it can be helpful to know to be able to say your goodbyes, it can be so helpful to be able to do that rather than a sudden death, which does impact the grief journey and the grief reaction. Just know that it's going to be hard, but we can do hard things
Something I really recommend doing is just being present every day with them. it's hard to do all the time, because we have to think about the future sometimes, but 10 minutes a day, just you know, set your alarm or set your timer, snuggle with them, feel their fur, smell their stinky breath, you know, just minutes a day of that quality time and just being there in the moment asking yourself if my head where my feet are at right now. You know, that's kind of how you can bring yourself back.
Another thing that I think is really helpful is writing. What writing does is it makes us slow down. And we have to organize our thoughts because all of those thoughts and feelings are jumbled up. They're not linear in our heads. But when we write we have to make them linear. We have to organize and articulate them. And putting words to our experience is one of those other ways to have a little bit of a sense of control over what we're going through and experiencing. So journaling can be helpful. And if you're not into journaling, then try this exercise, which is writing a series of three letters. The first letter is a letter to your pet. And this can be done before they pass or after they pass, really either one, but, write about five things: I love you for, I thank you for, I'm sorry for, please forgive me for, and it's okay to go my love. Let it be a love letter to them; talk about your favorite memories, the things that you've learned from them, and let that sit for a while. And when you're ready, the second letter is going to be a response letter, it's going to be a letter from your pet to yourself, with all of the love and forgiveness and encouragement that they would say to you. And then let that sit a little bit. And then the third letter is going to be a letter from you to you: a letter of self compassion, of allowing yourself to be human. Acknowledging that nobody has a crystal ball, reminding yourself that you did the best that you could. And reminding yourself of the lessons that you're going to take moving forward that your loved one taught. Writing those three letters can be really helpful in just helping us have a sense of goodbye, right before we say goodbye, or a sense of closure after.
TB: That's a fantastic idea. I feel like a lot of times people apologize for the grief that they're feeling. It's something that I catch a lot of people doing, if they're feeling emotional, or they feel like they need to kind of like, you know, suck it up.
CS: One of the most common things that happens in our support groups, is somebody will be telling their story, and they start crying. What's the first thing they do? They apologize, right? And that's why I say I have one big rule in my groups, and that is not apologizing for your tears. Because your loved one is worth every single tear.
It's okay to be human. It's part of the human experience to have times in our lives where everything changes. And we have to figure out where to go from there, and it's confusing and it's sad and it's hard. So, you know, just feel what you need to feel unapologetically and unabashedly. That's not always easy to do. But if you can, if you can remind yourself to be unapologetic about your feelings, I think that that will provide you some catharsis and a sense of empowerment in your grief experience.
You can listen to the full episode with Christina Saia on The Baroo podcast: