The holidays are often a time of joy and celebration, but for many people, it’s an especially painful time, too. If it’s the first holiday without your special cat, or if your cat is sick or dying, it can be sad and lonely–especially if everyone you know is celebrating while you’re grieving. And, of course, the epicenter of much of this grief is veterinary hospitals, particularly emergency vet clinics and veterinary specialty hospitals.
The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center recognized this need and started a program called Honoring the Bond. Honoring the Bond provides a specially trained social worker to help pet guardians cope with the loss of their beloved companion or to make difficult decisions for very ill pets.
“Grief is a very real and life-impacting feeling – whether that loss of a loved one is a human or animal,” said Joelle Nielsen, a licensed social worker and Honoring the Bond program coordinator at Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center. “We believe every veterinary medical center should have a social worker available to support pet owners navigating this loss.”
Nielsen developed and coordinates the Hospital-Based Veterinary Social Work Group, which provides support and collaborative opportunities for social workers at veterinary medical centers across the U.S. and Canada.
Right now, Ohio State’s program is one of only about 30 in the U.S. that provide a full-time social worker on staff at veterinary hospitals to help pet guardians face the loss of a beloved animal companion.
I wish the services of a social worker had been available when I had to have my beloved Dahlia euthanized or when my Kissy died as a result of one of those one-in-a-million freak surgical complications. I can’t remember ever feeling more alone in my life than I did when I had to make that solo walk out of the Animal Emergency Clinic with an empty carrier after I’d had Dahlia put to sleep. In fact, losing Dahlia and Kissy plunged me into a deep depression, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. If I’d had some support on-site, I might have been prompted to get into counseling a lot sooner than I did.
And yes, the holidays were very difficult. Kissy died on Veterans’ Day, and every time that day rolls around I remember everything that led up to her death. Years ago, these memories were along the brooding and “shoulda, coulda, woulda” line, but I’m grateful to say that now I remember the good times and how brave that cat was, overcoming a lifetime of trauma and being able to open her heart to the love I had for her. Dahlia died around Easter, and I still think of her a lot in early April. I’m glad neither of them died at Christmas time because even though I’m a pagan, Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year (Hey, it’s OK; just about everything we know as a Christmas tradition here in the U.S. was taken from pagan religions in the first place, right?) I have great compassion for those who are grieving during this season.
“The holidays can be especially difficult for owners that have lost a beloved cat. Sometimes, we can gently guide ourselves to more positive thoughts. We can recognize and honor that some memories make us sad, and also realize that those same memories can bring a smile to our face,” said Nielsen. “It is important to give ourselves permission to feel these emotions and remember those we lost. Some may reach out to a trusted friend, advisor or counselor. Others may choose do something creative to honor their cat’s memory, such as a tree ornament or a special holiday picture frame.”
I’ve honored my cats’ memories by keeping their collars and hanging them over a small Buddha statue I have on my altar. You can see my altar in the picture at the top of this story. I also honor their memories by writing their stories and sharing them with you on this blog and on the Paws and Effect Facebook (and Twitter, and Instagram) pages. By the way, if you’re not following us on social, what are you waiting for? I’ve also done rituals, either solo or with one or two friends, where I tell the cats’ stories and send their ashes off to the west.
It would be wonderful if social workers were available at vet specialty and emergency centers across the country. The Honoring the Bond program is a fantastic idea whose time has come. The best way to make this happen is to spread the word about Honoring the Bond and encourage owners of clinics to make this service available to their clients.
What have you done to honor your beloved and gone-before cats? Would you have benefited from having a veterinary social worker available during your cat’s illness and after their death? Please let us know in the comments.
Are you grieving the loss of a beloved cat right now? There are hotlines and websites that can help you process your feelings and honor your cat’s life. You can also share your stories here if you like. You’re in a community of cat lovers here and all of us have experienced what you’re going through right now, so please reach out if you need some support.
I am crying as I read your post. I had to euthanize my beloved Kali 12 December. I am devastated. I keep crying. I do not know how to deal with this. Every day I worry I waited to long or not long enough. She went down hill so fast. She was elderly. We tried medications—our vet had them made at a compounding pharmacy. She could not keep them down. She was my closest friend. Kali was also my only kitty. Her brother, Sammy, died in 2010 and so did our 16 year old cat, Rufus, who died during an operation. I have all three kitties ashes in little wooden boxes. I know I am rambling. I am so sad and confused.
I’m so very sorry about your Kali. What you’re feeling is completely normal–including the question of “did I wait long enough or did I wait too long?” I felt this so much after I had my Dahlia put to sleep and spent way too much time punishing myself for waiting too long. I’ve finally taken consolation in the fact that every decision I made on her behalf, I made with the best of intentions and with her well-being and quality of life in mind. I’m sure it was the same way with you and Kali.
As for not waiting long enough? That’s hard. I wondered that with Siouxsie because she wasn’t actively dying when I had her put to sleep, but she made it clear in no uncertain terms that she was just plain tired and ready to go. She was having recurrent urinary tract infections, so that can’t have been comfortable; not only that, but she’d started to become incontinent and I wanted her to die with her dignity intact. My vet comforted me when I made the initial decision with the words that it’s better to be a week too early than an hour too late.
Ramble all you need. If you think YOU rambled, my reply is probably three times as long. And remember, you’re not alone, and what you’re feeling is completely normal. It’s hard to lose your best friend, whether that best friend has two legs or four! Be gentle with yourself and perhaps seek out some support in your community. There may be a pet loss support group in your area. If you’re not one for groups, there are online forums where you can find support and compassion. I hope I’ve been able to help a little. Blessings to you.
Thank you for your words of wisdom. I have not been able to write back and thank you before now as I have been so distraught most of the time. I miss Kali terribly. Mornings and nights are the hardest as we had our routines. Night laying down without her loving purrs, kisses, and pats are still almost unbearable. I think I feel her getting on the bed and I think I hear her meows at night. I am working on trying to keep it together better. But, even writing this short note starts me crying again. Thanks for writing me.
Kept their collars in my pocket…Talked about them, posted about them. We have a tin of whiskers they have lost over the years, though only a few do we know who the owner is or was.
That’s really sweet, and I’m glad you had supportive and compassionate ears to listen when you talked about them. And I collect whiskers, too–I thought I was the only one!
Oh, I have twenty years-worth of whiskers, also, and a special jar. Reminds me of a poem by Adrienne Rich.
Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away,
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow –
original domestic silk, the finest findings –
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and dry darkbrown lace of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
The striving for greatness, brilliance –
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright, silk against roughness,
pulling the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.
My first cat that I had to euthanize was Mica. I was so distraught I couldn’t even be there to hold her and my husband had to do it. I cried for 5 days straight because I felt so guilty. Partly because I didn’t have a regular vet back then.
When it was Punkins, Spicy and TCs time, I didn’t want to let go. But I had a regular vet for those three and had a strong bond with the vet and staff.
I keep their collars with their ashes in wooden boxes in my living room.
I was a mess when I had to make the decision about Kitty. I was going through a divorce, in a city where I didn’t know anyone (we’d moved for my ex’s new job), and I felt completely alone. It’s always bothered me that Kitty’s regular vet wasn’t working that day – but it’s also true that the vet that was working sat and cried with me. She was a true blessing on that day.