After 14 years, Polly was a part of Robert Dessaix’s family. One day after her death, the writer grapples with grief and what it is to love a dog
By Robert Dessaix
We are a threesome. The most wonderful thing in the world for me – the most joyful, vivifying, meaningful, precious thing in the world – is my tiny family: Peter Timms, the dog and me. We are the only family any of us has. The dog is not a child, of course, nor a mere companion, nor even our “best friend”. The dog is our dog. The dog is our anchor. We love each other, Peter and I, anchored by our dog (we’ve had four). I can see that now. It has taken me all my life to see this. And I held out my arms in front of me in utter impotence with my fingers touching to try to hold us all in.
Polly died yesterday, you see. It is unbearable. I am not saying this for the sake of it: I cannot bear the acute sadness. I cannot bear the memories of yesterday before three o’clock or last week or ten years ago or 15. I cannot bear saying goodbye to Polly Timms forever. That’s the point, as it is when we kiss or wave or say goodbye to any loved being: it’s for the rest of time.
So you will forget, while frantic to remember everything forever – the rattle of her bowl, the bed she was asleep on every morning, how she turned that corner over there every morning on her walk, squatted on that lawn, pricked up her ears at “tummy rub” and “people coming”. Yet remembering any of it causes acute anguish.
I have to say this next thing (sorry) because it is at the heart of my grief today. Polly had stopped eating – a prawn here, a biscuit there, and even a sliver of salmon three days ago at a restaurant up on a hill above the sea where you can sit outside if you like, with your dog. But really she had stopped eating. And she was retching now and again. And tired easily. I thought we could cajole her into eating. But we couldn’t. Love is not all we need at all.
So when the vet said we might want to consider if it was time to say goodbye, I started bawling. How unmanly. I was shocked. Polly was right there, bright-eyed, I stretched out my hand, she wagged her tail and came over to me. She was given two weeks if we did nothing. I had to leave the room. I sat outside the room where Peter waited with her, crying loudly and disturbing everyone in the waiting room just round the corner. And when she was being led away past me, she turned and looked at me and gave me a last wag of her tail. And then she ceased to exist. Forever. Forever. In a second.
This memory is unbearable today. You know why. It makes me feel sick.
It is the trust, even “unto death”. She trusted us to do the best thing for her. Why was what we did the best thing? What sort of universe is that? We had to coax her into the car to take her down to the vet’s to her death. The memory is beyond painful.
Nothing is the same today. I have never woken up in this house without finding Polly waiting for a pat. I have never spent a day here without hearing her, seeing her, moving about, going in and out of the garden. Now nothing. Just yesterday we strolled around the block, sniffing things and peeing here and there as usual. The day before she went for a walk beside the river in the sun. The day before that along a wild beach on the east coast (after that slice of salmon at the restaurant on the hill). The day before that … but it is painful to remember, it’s a kind of anguish.
Our family has lost its glue. That’s the first word I said, apart from “No”: “The glue has gone.” Peter and I are left untethered in the emptiness, we have come unstuck, for now we are sickeningly adrift.
We will recover. We all do. Just an ache will be left when we see think of Polly. And then, in some form, it will happen again.
Dogs are not people. A dog may be playful and dependent, not understanding simple things, just like a child, but a dog is not a child; a dog may always be beside you or in the backyard, with nothing to say but with a ready pleasure at seeing you come in the door, at being close, yet is not just a companion; a dog is not one of your friends, you can’t chat – although you can joke with her sometimes – nor share anything beyond the moment.
What is a dog, then? What is this being that is not really a child, companion or friend but … WHAT? Something I now see there is no word for because a dog is a different order of being – not better than a cat or parrot, but different. A soulmate, I suppose. Is that enough? A heart to give your heart to. To lose this soulmate, to surrender her to a needle one Tuesday afternoon, is indescribably painful. There is no remedy. She’s gone. My love, you see, was not enough.
It’s all too short, too fragile – and the ending is incomprehensible. How can a loved being cease to exist? There is hardly time to love a dog as you’d like, as the dog would no doubt like. I must concentrate now on noticing and loving what is present – not live in the present like a blowfly, but focus on what I can see and hear and touch and hold, not worrying about what it will all add up to mean. Magnify it somehow. But how?
Polly was a gentle dog, a self-possessed brown dog found on the street across the river from our house and taken to a refuge. When we went to the refuge all those years ago, what caught Peter’s eye was the independence of this dog in her cage, her take-it-or-leave it attitude to us, not barking or asking for attention or to be taken home, please. The morning after we took her home, before she even knew her name, I popped out of the front door to pick up the Sunday newspaper. She didn’t bother saying goodbye or thank you, she just took off up the street, looking for something more to her taste. No hurry, just determined. I rang after her in my pyjamas in a panic, calling her name, but she didn’t know it. Finally, just before we came to the main road, she hesitated and I caught her and took her home. She stayed till yesterday – 14 years, 14 years of beauty.
We all have these stories, but I can’t bear it.
She never put a foot wrong. She was kind and considerate. She didn’t bark, except at the moon when we were up at the shack in the bush. She was beautiful. She bound us together.
I am beside myself with grief, to be honest. What grief does is split you open, letting all sort of other sadnesses and dreads spill out. For instance, I don’t know what today is for. And I am crying over Peter’s coming death as well as my own, not just Polly’s death. The universe didn’t even notice my dog. Why would it? It doesn’t notice us. I can see that. We are each of us utterly of no account. I can hardly breathe.
She knew about thirty words. She wasn’t Einstein, and said nothing back, but for a moment in time we were three beings tethered happily together, knowing what the other two were feeling and wanting.
I have two photographs in my study here where I’m sitting that show Peter and Polly and, in one of them, me with them. Our tiny mortal family. For a moment in time, together and happy. I’m looking at them now.
Everyone goes through this kind of raw misery, I know, not just on battlefields but in the house across the street, and much, much worse. Nobody escapes. I first went through it when I was a toddler and a butcher-bird killed my canary in its cage on the front verandah.
Mortality and love. But I never seem to learn.
Thank you, Polly. I know you can’t hear me. But thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Tolstoy used to be a formidable elephant: Massive in size, revered by the young bulls, and with tusks so long they touched the ground. When he was alive, Tolstoy had been more than just some random animal. He was a beloved member of a close-knit community filled with colorful personalities.
That is why when he died – the victim of a spear wound inflicted while he had been innocently searching for food — other elephants visited his body to pay their respects. The pachyderm rituals would not have seemed out of place at a human funeral: Some stood in quiet order while observing Tolstoy’s remains, and others gently touched his body with their trunks.
“There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that’s rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking.”
Quiet scenes like this are peppered throughout “Secrets of the Elephants,” a Disney+ series produced by “Avatar” director James Cameron that premieres on Earth Day (April 22). While it is not the first documentary series to profile elephants, it is certainly one of the most visually spectacular. With gorgeous cinematography and the guiding presence of narrator Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, the four-part series travels from the Savannahs of Africa to dense Asian metropolises to chronicle how elephants think, feel and communicate with one another.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who is also the CEO of the charitable organization Wildlife Direct, is the secondary star of the series — one of the world’s foremost elephant experts, and an on-the-ground researcher who has spent years studying elephants in the wild. Kahumbu is the kind of elephant authority whose voice fills up with emotion as she describes an individual elephant who she drew to admire almost as a friend; not surprisingly, Kahumbu drops terms like “Big Tusker” and “Super Tusker” quite casually in conversations. (Big Tuskers are elephants so old that their tusks grew all the way to the ground; Super Tuskers have even larger tusks.) Salon spoke with Kahumbu about the filming process, elephant emotions and what she’s learned after observing elephants for decades.
The following interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.
I was very upset when Tolstoy the elephant died. In the show, you observed that his loss would profoundly affect the entire community of elephants, and especially the youth he was mentoring. Can you elaborate a little on who Tolstoy was as an individual and why you felt that way after his passing?
I knew Tolstoy for many, many years and filmed with him. He’s one of the few Big Tuskers that we call a Super Tusker. They are bigger than an ordinary Big Tuskers, which are very large, full-grown adult elephants with very large tusks. His tusks were so long, they grew all the way down to the ground, and it’s very rare for elephants to get to that size. His nature was very calm, very relaxed and very patient and wise. He was an elephant who was always surrounded by other bulls… and that’s because of the role he played in his elephant society. Basically the Super Tuskers are the bulls that younger bulls would hang out with to learn because the Super Tuskers have had so many years of experience and knowledge. They know how to navigate difficult terrain or how to navigate human-dominated landscapes and other dangers and threats to them. He was a bull whose role in the society of elephants was to educate the youngsters, keep them in tow, because young elephants can be very boisterous. They can be very dangerous. And without doing anything that looks outwardly obvious to us, elephants speak in a language that we can’t hear. Tolstoy could manage the other younger bulls and make sure that they don’t do anything troublesome.
How did he communicate with them, though? I’m fascinated by this because you say in the documentary that they talk to each other and what they say clearly has meaning. How can you as an observer discern that meaning?
Elephants have been recorded! You can use infrasonic recorders to capture what they’re saying, the actual sounds that they’re making, and you can actually play them back and you can see how they behave when you play back the sounds. You can also record the sounds and their body language and see what do they do and how they act when they make certain sounds. For example, sometimes elephants will be walking along and then they will all suddenly freeze. They’ll just be all still as statues, and one might wave its ears or something.
What is happening when they stop and they all stand still is they’re all listening. They’ll be listening with their feet. They’ll be listening with their trunks, which they rest on the ground. They’ll be listening with their ears. Then they will rumble. Some of their rumbles we cannot hear because it’s happening in a sound frequency that we cannot detect. The matriarch or the biggest bull will make a decision about what to do next. It could be we’re gonna go left, we’re gonna go to that mountain, or we’re gonna wait. Like, for example, if a baby elephant needs to sleep, the matriarch will make a decision: “Everybody stop! Nobody’s going anywhere. You can stay where you are, feed where you are, but we’re not walking anymore. The baby needs to rest.”
That reminds me of the episode in the African desert. A baby fell asleep, and the mother and aunt stayed behind to protect it while the other elephants in the pack moved forward. Why did that happen, given what you just explained?
The matriarch is also making a decision for the whole family, and the mother is having to make a decision for her baby, her newborn baby. The matriarch is having to make really difficult choices. The family has to move. They have to keep moving. The mother, who is a a new young mother, hasn’t had the experience of waking up her baby on time. The matriarch is simply trying to survive. She is making sure that everybody moves, and the female who got left behind — I’ve seen that a lot, even in Kenya — sometimes elephants will be left behind two or three kilometers, but because they have this phenomenal ability to listen and hear several kilometers apart, you might look at elephants and think that they’re disconnected and they’re scattered across the landscape, but they’re actually really together because they’re still talking to each other. So I think that what happened in that episode is the family moved on. She said, “I’ll just wait for my baby.” She waited too long and then she lost track of the family, although she did find them.
“When they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family… They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident.”
One of the scenes that affected me the most personally — and it’s because I have a disability and I suffer from disability-related issues — was the elephant with the shortened trunk who couldn’t feed himself, and one of the other elephants gave him food out of kindness. How often do you see that kind of behavior with elephants?
It’s probably something that happens from time to time. We’ve seen it with that baby elephant with a shortened trunk. I’ve seen it myself in other elephants. So it’s something that if you’re a scientist and you’re really observing carefully, you might witness it, but it’s not something that all elephants would do because they don’t always need to be helped. The ability to capture that moment is another amazing thing about this particular crew. They went out to find those situations where an elephant would need help and where you’re likely to see that kind of behavior.
We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They’ll go down to a water hole, they’ll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won’t step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot. They won’t step on, they won’t hurt other animals if they don’t need to.
I’m going back to when Tolstoy died, but there was the scene where you see the other elephants approach his body. For all intents and purposes, it appears that they are mourning, and in your dialogue, you refer to it as a ritual. What do we know for sure about how elephants grieve the loss of other elephants?
Well, that’s a really great question. We actually don’t know very much at all. All we know that they have an incredible sense of smell. And elephants can know each other from their individual smells. They can tell who’s who from their dung. They can literally sniff the dung and know who it was, who passed here, a little bit like a dog, but even better because their sense of smell is many times greater than that of a dog. So they can also detect the identity of an elephant that has died. And they often, for some reason, show a lot of interest in the tusks of dead elephants. And they will repeatedly return to dead elephants or relatives, dead relatives, and they will come towards them. They will touch them, feel them. If an elephant has recently died or is dying, they will even try to raise it, or they will stand around and just be with a dying elephant.
Once an elephant has died, they will sometimes even cover it up with bushes. It’s a really peculiar thing. We don’t really understand it, to be honest. It’s not something that you see every day because elephants live for a very long time, so you don’t see a lot of dead elephants out there. But when they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family. It affects all the relatives and the friends of that elephant. I’ve seen elephants standing around dead elephants, and they will stand there sometimes for days. They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident.
What memories of your own individual encounters with elephants do you cherish the most? What are your favorite emotional memories of your experiences with elephants?
I studied elephants for my PhD, which was incredible. I worked with elephants in the field. I think the most amazing thing with elephants is when they begin to trust you. When years and years later, I started filming elephants and I was filming Big Tuskers, including Tolstoy and his nephew Tim who was another Super Tusker they were all hanging out together with a big group of bulls. And I could see that they were tired, it was hot, it was a very humid afternoon. They’d clearly been up for hours and they needed to sleep. And mostly elephants will sleep standing up, and they will go and stand in the shade. They will basically hide out or conceal themselves somehow in the bush.
These elephants did something so unusual. They came out of the bush close to our vehicles — literally, I’m talking about two or three meters — and then they lay down in front of our vehicles and they went to sleep and they snored for two hours in front of us. And that trust that they had in us… I mean, if I was a poacher, I could have taken out eight or 10 elephants in that two hours. They just lay down, went to sleep, snored their heads off, and then later on woke up and continued grazing. It was really a very moving experience. They trusted us enough to go to sleep with us right there.
“We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They’ll go down to a water hole, they’ll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won’t step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot.”
I’m empathizing with the elephants because I have sleep apnea. I’m just trying to imagine the size and design of a CPAP for a snoring elephant.
(laughing) How would they get the mask over the trunk?
You and I should corner the market on elephant CPAPs.
They make a lot of noise! What’s interesting also, when they sleep like that and even when they sleep standing up, they’re usually touching each other. There’s very touchy-feely animals. They love and they seem to have a need to be in physical contact with each other. So one elephant will lie down and the next one will lie down, but its feet or its trunk will be touching the next elephant. When they get up, they will touch each other just very softly with their foot, almost like gently waking up someone the way you would with your hand. It’s really fascinating that how gentle they are with each other.
This documentary was executive produced by James Cameron, maker of the “Avatar” movies, and I thought I could feel his influence in the cinematography. The visuals, the clarity of detail in the images was amazing. For instance, with the elephant’s skin in scenes where they’re walking along landscapes, you can catch every detail. I know that you’ve been studying elephants for decades, but have worked with filmmakers like James Cameron for decades? If not, how was that experience unique for you?
I’d never worked with James Cameron directly, but I’d worked with many different filmmakers on documentaries — only maybe a little bit of animation, but nothing like “Avatar.” “Avatar” is extraordinary. I think they did an amazing job in the sequel of making those sea animals appear to be so much like maybe a marriage of an elephant and a whale. They seem to resonate with us. You could imagine a real animal. Working with filmmakers has been extraordinary. I’m blown away by, particularly in this series, the crews were not just people who are on a job and have got five days to do something. These are crews who committed months of their year to spend time in some of the most inhospitable places.
“While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they’re in much more trouble in other places.”
I mean, in the deserts of Namibia, they’re sleeping in a tent. It’s extremely hot. There is no water, and you have to get up very early and you’ve gotta be out on the road searching for those elephants all day long. It’s physically hard. It’s also emotionally draining because you’re away from everybody for months at a time in the Congo. You are being eaten alive by insects. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. It was one of the most difficult physical environments to work in, but these crews didn’t ever complain. I was blown away. And when we did see the elephants in the Namibian episode in the desert elephant episode in particular, there was such a sense of celebration that we had. We could find these elephants even though they’re very difficult to find. This joy and appreciation of elephants among the crew made it a very special film to work on. I hadn’t expected that.
I thought I’m the only one who really cares about elephants and I’m crazy about elephants. But I met people who really share that. And it comes out very clearly in the way that the film was shot. I don’t know if you know that quite a few of the producers — every single episode had a different producer — three of them were women, and the overall producer of the whole series was a woman. There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that’s rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking. And for me that was also such a joy to do. It was really incredible.
Is there anything that you would like to discuss that I have not broached so far through my questions?
I studied elephants in Kenya, where I’ve spent my lifetime fighting to save elephants, to stop the poaching, to keep their lands open, keep their migratory corridors open and all that kind of stuff. It sometimes feels like a thankless job because it’s quite hard. Human populations are growing. Elephants are encountering people increasingly. The challenges keep me very busy in Kenya. But this film forced me to go way beyond Kenya into many other countries of Africa and Asia. And what I found was that elephants are in peril everywhere. While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they’re in much more trouble in other places. There are only 1,500 pygmy elephants left in the Namibian desert, only 150 desert elephants remaining in the Congo. The elephants have been so persecuted by people that they’re terrified and dangerous because some feel that they must retaliate against all humans. They don’t have a sense that any humans are good humans. I really feel that that’s a message we need to use this film, to help the people around the world to understand how amazing elephants are and that we have a big job ahead of us to save them — not not just for us, but for future generations.
— Because it’s often far more painful than any of us let on
By Megan Hotson
From dogs and cats to tortoise and fish – there are few small animals we haven’t brought into our homes and loved as pets over the years.
According to research from the UK Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) 62% of households in the UK were said to have owned some kind of pet in 2022, making us an undeniably animal-loving nation.
Despite this fact (and the reality that there are people losing their animals daily), we tend to shy away from discussing our feelings when it comes to pet grief.
In one 2019 study, researchers found that 25% of owners ‘took between 3 and 12 months to accept the loss of their pet, 50% between 12 and 19 months, and 25% took between 2 and 6 years, to recover’.
Clearly, more of us are struggling than we might care to recognise. So, we spoke to grief and bereavement expert, Lianna Champ, about the best ways to remove the stigma and tackle this strangely taboo issue.
With over 40 years’ experience and a practical guide, How to Grieve like a Champ, under her belt, Lianna is an expert in how to deal with loss of any kind, including your pets. This is what she told us.
Give yourself permission to grieve
One of the most important things we can do, according to Lianna, is to be honest about our feelings and recognise that they are valid. After all, ‘grief is grief,’ she explains, adding that some people can often feel more pain from the loss of a pet, than a relative. ‘It is important to allow yourself to feel devastated by losing a pet and understand the significance of the relationship you had.’
While those without pets might not be as sympathetic, that doesn’t mean these feelings of loss can be any less painful, says Lianna. ‘What determines the level of grief felt is not whether the loss relates to a human or animal, but rather the strength of the relationship between the person grieving and the human or animal that has sadly passed away,’ she says.
Don’t shy away from discussing your feelings
Most of us will drone on for hours about the joy that comes with owning pets. And yet when they die? We’re often silent on the matter, reluctant to discuss or admit the pain which comes with losing an animal.
According to Lianna, human grief is something we are more likely to take time out for to seek help, or work through properly, meaning that we are often better positioned to cope with its effects. But when it comes to animals, the same just can’t be said. Often, she explains, ‘it’s because we feel that we don’t have societal permission to grieve in the same way as we would with humans
One way to feel more comfortable about grieving the loss of a pet, Lianna suggests, is to regularly talk or share stories about your pet with people around you. This, she says helps to set up a support network of people who know just how much that pet meant to you and will already have a level of understanding if you happen to then lose a pet.
Recognise the impact losing a pet can have on wellbeing
The physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet are well known, from a dog’s ability to get you out walking in the fresh air every day, to the soothing, stress-busting capacities stroking a cat can elicit. In fact, research conducted last year found that owning a pet, especially for five years or longer, may be linked to slower cognitive decline in older adults.
Then there’s the unconditional element of the love a pet offers – something which is too often overlooked, says Lianna. Unlike those complicated relationships with our fellow humans, the relationships we have with pets are free from conflict, or compromise.
‘Humans often treasure the unconditional love and comfort they can get from a relationship with an animal because pets don’t get caught up in drama like humans do,’ explains Lianna. The wellbeing impact of that ‘drama’ can be significant too – research from 2020 found that troubled (human) relationships can double our risk of depression and anxiety disorders.
So, when someone says losing their pet was harder for them than losing a relative, believe them. After all, many pet owners might not form the same type of relationship with humans, meaning their grief for their animal could be the strongest emotional reaction they have to death, explains Lianna.
Be honest with your kids about the loss
When it comes to communicating the death of a pet with children, Lianna urges parents to prioritise honesty as much as possible. ‘This is because losing a pet can be a positive way to educate kids on how death is a natural and expected part of life,’ she explains.
A part of this honesty is trying not to conceal your own emotions fully in front of your children in a bid to shield them. ‘Your raw emotions might act to provide comfort and show humility to a child who also feels upset and wants a figure to relate or talk to about their feelings,’ she emphasises.
Alongside this, Lianna outlines the importance of using language that is easy to understand as a way of helping younger children grapple with death. ‘Given the complexity of the concept, honesty and clear vocabulary are key to teaching your children how natural the process is.’
So, avoid confusing euphemisms like “passed away”, “gone to live over the rainbow” and “moved on” etc. Instead, explain to them clearly and precisely what has happened, and be ready to give them the support they need.
Don’t rush to replace your lost pet
Lianna suggests that we tend to replace our pets soon after they die as a quick fix solution to cover up feelings of loss. However, this won’t necessarily help you. ‘Buying a new pet to replace another prevents us from sitting with the grief to accept it and move on in a healthy way,’ she says. ‘It also makes it harder to form a bond with your next pet if you do not leave time to grieve in-between.’
As for your kids? While replacement is a popular course of action, substituting your pet with another could have a damaging effect on your children’s understanding of death. ‘Replacing a pet without explaining to the child what has happened or why it has happened will minimise a child’s relationship or affinity to their pet,’ she explains. ‘Telling your child, “you can go Buy a new one on Monday” will prevent them from working through their loss in an open and healthy way.’
eed something else to help with the heartbreak? Here are three different things you can help your child, or family cope with the emotional heartbreak of losing a pet.
3 WAYS TO COPE WITH PET GRIEF
According to grief expert Lianna Champ
Find an appropriate way to commemorate. You could cremate, bury, or perhaps plant a tree to celebrate the life of your deceased pet. Commemorating and celebrating the end of their life can be a really key and special part of the bereavement process.
Share and celebrate memories. Displaying photos of your pet who has passed away in your house, or sharing them with others, is a nice way to feel their presence after they are gone and remember their legacy. You could even get your children to create memory boxes, or scrap books as a way to work through your loss collectively.
Volunteer at an animal sanctuary. It can be hard for families that have lost a pet to form a bond with another pet straight away. Instead of buying a new pet, try volunteering with other animals – it’ll help you work through your loss whilst being surrounded and comforted by other animals.
Veterinarian Dr. Karen Fine has been caring for pets in Central Massachusetts for decades, often doing house calls to treat sick or injured animals. She decided to weave those stories together into a recently released memoir, “The Other Family Doctor,” on the Knopf Doubleday imprint Anchor Books, which has gained nationwide attention.
What kind of reception has the book gotten so far?
A lot of the comments I’ve read on Amazon and Goodreads and (that I’ve heard) talking to people are that people feel seen. I just found out it’s on the New York Times bestseller list. They want to look at books that are selling well from many different places. I was on CNN on Saturday and I think that’s what got my name out there.
When did you decide to write “The Other Family Doctor”?
The idea came about because I’m a veterinarian and I see a lot of human suffering as well as animals that need medical care. People are often quite upset, especially when their animals are sick or old and the time is coming to think about euthanasia. I wrote the book wanting to tell some funny stories I had, but the real reason I wrote the book was to tell people what it’s like to be a veterinarian and a pet owner and deal with these decisions around quality of life and end of life. I’ve had the idea for a long, long time.
What’s the book about?
It follows the story of me and a few of my pets, especially a dog I had who got cancer when she was only four. She was the dog of honor in my wedding. It was about six months after that that she got diagnosed with cancer, and it’s about taking care of her and how bonded to her my husband and I were. I see so many people that have these really close relationships with their animals, and I think sometimes people feel like they’re alone in that. It’s not really talked about that much in our society.
Many people have these really close bonds with them, and they especially feel that when they get sick or old and they’re taking extra care of them, when they become a special needs animal for whatever reason. People get so bonded and are so upset when their animal needs extra care that it’s just very difficult, and I think a lot of people feel alone in that situation. I wrote the book to make people feel less alone.
You’ve said that we might want to follow our pets’ example in some ways. Can you talk about that?
I really believe that we have a lot to learn from animals, and as they are dying, I see animals that really seem to accept the fact that they’re dying. I liken it to a dog having puppies or a cat having kittens, where no one’s told them what’s going to happen but they instinctively know what to do.
I think death is like that for them. They don’t think about it beforehand, but when they’re getting these certain signals from their body, they accept it and know what to do. I hear people say that they’re afraid of death, and I don’t feel that animals are afraid of death. It’s not that animals don’t have a survival instinct, but they don’t think about it beforehand, and when it’s happening, they’re able to accept it. People spend a lot of time thinking about fear of death, and it’s probably fear of the unknown, whereas animals don’t spend time thinking about it, yet from what I see, they seem able to comprehend it when it’s happening.
What might people not know about losing a pet?
A lot of people feel upset even when their pet is still healthy, and that’s called anticipatory grief. Some people get very worried and it turns out their animal is fine, but it can really feel overwhelming because we’re so close to them. There are now veterinary social workers, which is a good thing, and I would say try to find somebody to talk to if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your animal’s illness. Also, talk to your veterinarian. That’s why we’re there, to help people make choices so they can make the best choices for their animals. You’re not alone and you’re going to do this with your veterinarian.
How long have you been practicing veterinary medicine?
Thirty years. I always wanted to be a veterinarian. That’s fairly common. Some people went and had another career first, but I always, from when I was a little kid, wanted to be a veterinarian. At the time, I was more likely to get into Tufts because that was my local school. I grew up in Framingham and Sudbury and I settled in Worcester after graduation. I did house calls for 25 years. I stopped doing house calls during the pandemic, and now I’ve been focusing on writing. I also wrote a textbook. I’m still practicing part-time.
Animal hospitals stayed open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What was that like?
It was very difficult, and at the beginning, very scary, because we didn’t know if you could get COVID from someone coughing on an animal and then the animal coming into the clinic. When the vaccines came out, we were lumped in with the general public, so that was also very difficult.
A lot of people got puppies during the pandemic, so there were so many more puppies, which is great, but it was very challenging in terms of fitting everybody in with appointments. Sometimes, there was one person in the family who wanted a pet and the other person said maybe not, and then all of a sudden, everybody was home and it was a good time to get an animal. Some of it was people who didn’t have pets before getting them, and some of it was people who maybe had one dog and decided to get another one. It’s a good time to get a puppy when you’re home all the time because it’s easier to housebreak them.
What’s your advice to anyone who might be looking to adopt a dog?
Take your time. Don’t buy a dog online, because there are a lot of puppy mills advertising online. They’re very good at it, so they say they’re not puppy mills. It takes more time to go through a shelter, because they might want to call your veterinarian and see if you took good care of your previous pet, ask you a lot of questions, but they really are committed to seeing that those animals have good homes.
The term “vet pet” refers to times when veterinarians will adopt pets that need a little more care day-to-day. Have you taken in any animals that way?
Yes. My dog who got sick and had cancer had come into the clinic from animal control, and she had been hit by a car, and she had a broken toe. The other ones I’ve gone looking for, but I always had rescues. I see a lot of animals that need homes, and I know there are a lot of animals out there who need homes.
The first message I left on the veterinarian’s phone last winter was so distorted by tears and grief that I had to call back twice to repeat the details.
It had been 26 hours of sleeplessness and stress since our older shepherd’s legs had given way beneath her and I realized she wouldn’t be able to stand again on her own.
We were fast approaching a moment where her diminished quality of life — she wasn’t eating much and had given up on our daily walks — was edging into suffering. My husband and I anguished over what we knew was inevitable. We’d used in-home euthanasia services when our previous dog had developed cancer, but I think I would’ve been comforted if I’d known about the advice that veterinarians like Dr. Kenzie Quick gives to clients in times like these: “Better a moment too soon than a day too late.”
“This little buddy of mine has seen me through so many things that no one else has.”
Quick, a Tucson, Arizona, staff veterinarian with Lap of Love, a company that provides in-home hospice and euthanasia service for pets, acknowledges that knowing exactly when to make the decision to put a companion animal out of their pain is a delicate one. “There is no perfect time,” she says. “Any time between when their quality of life is no longer good but they’re not suffering. Any time in that zone is the time to say goodbye.”
Saying goodbye to Rex, Heather Boschke’s Yorkie/Pomeranian mix, was something she dreaded. “He’s seen me through job transitions, two boyfriends and one fiancé. This little buddy of mine has seen me through so many things that no one else has.”
But at sixteen years old, Rex had advanced kidney disease, wore diapers and was struggling to walk. Boschke and her husband reached out to friends who recommended MN Pets, Minnesota-based in-home euthanasia care.
What she found, Boschke says, was empathy and, most important, confirmation that she was making the best decision for Rex. “The memory we have of his passing was caring and dignified.”
Paradox of Difficult Yet Fulfilling Work
Quick believes that’s an essential part of her interaction with the pet owner, from the first call to the moment when the animal is gone. “My role is to come in, be calm, validate their decision and then to take really good care of their pet. To let them know that I have this under control and to provide that peaceful transition,” she explains.
Dr. Karen Fine, a veterinarian and author of “The Other Family Doctor,” writes that when she began making house calls and offering in-home euthanasia services, she had to learn to be comfortable “around grief and intense emotions.” She adds, “I often felt like I didn’t belong in the sacred space between human and animal at such a pivotal moment.”
The number of vets who specialize in in-home euthanasia has grown over the last several decades, but overall, there is a shortage of practicing veterinarians. That means that the demand for in-home services like hospice and euthanasia has skyrocketed.
Kristi Lehman, a veterinary social worker for MN Pets, worries about the demands on the doctors and staff. “Our team is being pushed to their physical limits with how many families they can see and how many appointments they can drive to. So, there is a lot of discussion about our doctors’ quality of life.”
Now, the international non-profit has a database of over 1,400 photographers around the world who offer their services to grieving pet owners and capture the tender moments families share with their beloved animal companions as they say goodbye for the final time.
“This photography acts as a tool to allow families to navigate through their own grief journey while having tangible memories of their pet’s final stages of life,” Smith-Kennedy tells PetaPixel.
“Many times, scheduling this type of session can also allow the families to come to terms with anticipatory grief.”
Smith-Kennedy has shared some of the beautiful and moving images that The Tilly Project’s photographers have captured for pet owners across the globe.
Smith-Kennedy, who works as a director at a wildlife center, began The Tilly Project after she experienced her own loss when her cat Tilly passed away in a freak accident.
The traumatic experience inspired her to use her photography skills for a good cause and help others who were experiencing the loss of a pet.
Smith-Kennedy began offering free end-of-life photo shoots to other pet owners as a way to always remember their animals. She also began collecting the names and information of other photographers who were willing to offer the same service.
In less than two years, The Tilly Project went from being a Facebook group to a nonprofit and valuable end-of-life pet photography network that provides resources for pet loss and bereavement. It also serves as a support system for those who have lost or are about to lose a pet.
“There is a high demand for end-of-life pet photography — many families want that chance to celebrate and honor the lives of their pets who mean the world to them. Some weeks I will receive hundreds of inquiries,” Smith-Kennedy says.
“When I am doing my end-of-life sessions, I give lots of prompts instead of poses. I love to encourage those authentic, real moments that will then be turned into precious memories.”
Lauren Smith-Kennedy | The Tilly Project[/caption]
Individuals can sign up to become an affiliate photographer with The Tilly Project on the nonprofit’s website.
“We welcome photographers of all skill levels,” Smith-Kennedy explains. “We do require photographers to have an online gallery that displays their work so families are able to see this portfolio prior to connecting.”
She adds: “We have a mix of photographers who offer this service for free, and those who charge as they have a photography business.”
Pet parents often say that losing their animal companions is as hard as, if not harder than, losing a human family member, experts say
By Marlene Cimons
Since 2012, Dana Topousis has lost four dogs — all young Dobermans — to illness.
Galen died of heart disease; the others, Homer, Romeo and Ruthie, succumbed to different cancers. So, she knows grief, which she calls “a lonely thing.”
“I live by myself, and my animals are my family, so it takes me a long time to recover,” said Topousis, of Davis, Calif., head of marketing and communications for the University of California at Davis. “Also, because my dogs were young, there’s unexpressed love — you think about all the things you won’t get to do with your dog.”
Pet parents often say that losing their animal companions can sometimes be as hard as, if not harder than, losing a human family member, experts said.
“Your pets follow you into bathroom. They sleep with you. They are your shadow. Human family members don’t do that,” said Leigh Ann Gerk, a pet loss grief counselor in Loveland, Colo., and founder of Mourning to Light Pet Loss. “Humans don’t go crazy with joy when you come back inside after getting the mail. Human relationships, while important, can be difficult. Our relationship with our pets is simple. They love us just as we are.”
People want to help, but often don’t know how. Sometimes their comments can hurt.
“Greater society doesn’t recognize the intensity of this loss and the grieving that comes with it,” said Jessica Kwerel, a D.C. psychotherapist who specializes in pet loss.
How to support grieving pet parents
We spoke with pet loss grief experts about how people can support grieving pet parents. Here is their advice:
Avoid euphemisms and platitudes. Don’t say, “They are in a better place,” since “the only place you want your pet is in your home,” Gerk said. Other things not to say: “They’re running free,” “They’re not in pain anymore,” “They’re with your other dogs now,” “They’ve gained their wings” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
While some people might find these phrases healing, others may see them as dismissive, Kwerel said. “That’s trying to apply logic to an emotional experience,” she said.
Members of one social media dog rescue group told Topousis that one day she would see Romeo — who lost a leg to osteosarcoma — running again on all four legs. She cringed. “I know they meant to comfort me, but it was a painful thought,” she said.
Never say an animal has been “put to sleep,” when explaining a pet’s death to a young child. They may fear going to sleep at night. “Instead, you can say: ‘We helped him along in his dying process,’” Kwerel said.
Be careful with Rainbow Bridge imagery. The Rainbow Bridge is a mythical overpass where grieving pet parents are said to reunite forever with their departed animals.
“That’s not a belief system for some people,” Gerk said. “I’ve had clients say they want to believe in the Rainbow Bridge, but they don’t know if they do. I remind them: if it brings them comfort to believe in it, then believe in it.”
Provide validation with facts, if possible. I lost one of my dogs, Raylan, recently to splenic hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive and fatal cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, Raylan enjoyed five terrific months before the cancer returned.
A stranger wrote this to me via a Facebook dog rescue group: “I am a human pathologist. This kind of cancer is essentially incurable in both people and dogs. Five months of quality time after first diagnosis is fantastic. You did the right thing, no matter how hard. Don’t second guess yourself. Further efforts would have just prolonged suffering.”
Guilt often goes along with mourning, and his comments eased both for me.
Share your pet grief story. It can help the grieving pet parent to know you’ve been through it, too, but don’t make it about yourself.
“Don’t compare grief situations,” said Michele Pich, assistant director of the Shreiber Family Pet Therapy program at Rowan University. “That won’t help. You can say: ‘I understand how painful this can be,’ but keep the focus on this current experience.”
If you knew the pet, share your memories. It’s helpful for pet owners “to know their animal has made an impact on other people’s lives as well as their own,” Pich said. And use the pet’s name rather than saying, “your dog” or “your cat,” Gerk suggested.
Rituals are wonderful. Make a donation to a rescue group or plant a tree in that animal’s honor. Write a poem about the pet, or even an obituary. Topousis’s co-workers used photos of Romeo from her Facebook page to commission a painting of him that now hangs in her living room.