Saying Goodbye to Virginia - Thoughts on Mourning our Pets

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Virginia found me 15 years ago. She was a scruffy stray who stared into my windows in the evenings. Each time I saw her, I ran outside with a can of cat food, and Virginia promptly ran away. It took weeks, but she eventually trusted me enough to come up to me. After a bit of petting, I swept her into my arms and took her inside; she was happy to go.

Virginia was more than a pet to me. She accompanied me through multiple moves and job changes. She was there at the start of my marriage - eyeing my husband suspiciously for years. She meowed insistently from sunny windows, inviting me to slow down and join her. She slept with her back pressed against mine on chilly nights. She was a constant companion and a friend. 

When I had to euthanize her 6 months ago, it was intensely painful. I was lucky enough to be able to take that day off - to cry, and to tell funny stories about her, and to cry some more. But, after that, things pretty much went back to normal. Normalcy was hard. I would open my closet or drive down my block and be startled to see that nothing had changed. I would remind myself that Virginia and I were the only things that had changed. She was gone, and I was grieving. Everything and everyone else was going on as usual. 

I have been thinking about how I felt after Virginia’s death, and what contributed to it. When a person dies, we have rituals. We have acts of mourning, dictated by culture and religion, that help us make sense of our loss. They give us a path to move forward, and they can be healing. We don’t have these prescribed steps for mourning animals, and this can leave us feeling disoriented and alone in our grief.  

But, as animals are increasingly being considered as family members, we are beginning to recognize that marking their passing can be an important step in the healing process. Because we do not have societal expectations for mourning our pets, we have the freedom to get creative. We can choose actions and memorials that reflect our unique relationships with our pets. Journaling or writing a letter to the pet, selecting an urn, planting a tree or flower, having a piece of art or jewelry made with the pet’s ashes, taking a dog’s favorite walk, holding a memorial service, or volunteering at a local animal shelter in the pet’s name are just a few examples of mourning rituals. Big or small, private or public, it doesn’t matter as long as it has meaning to you. 

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I had not really thought about these ideas before Virginia died. I was unprepared. But I knew that I wanted a special urn for her. My husband is a carpenter, and he designed an urn. When it was completed, we quietly placed Virginia inside and had a long cathartic cry. We chose a spot for the urn on our credenza, where it can be in the sun for much of the day. This simple act of remembering helped me find the peace and connection that I was missing. It felt like I was honoring her, recognizing my grief, and acknowledging the impact that she had on my heart. 

 

Why I Believe in Euthanasia at Home

Why I Believe in Euthanasia at Home

For the first few years after my graduation, my hands shook whenever I had to perform a euthanasia. I was overwhelmed by the weight of what I was doing and the grief of the owners in the room. I avoided the responsibility whenever possible. As I matured as a doctor, however, I began to realize that the emotion that makes performing euthanasias so difficult is also what makes it so important.

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