The three stages of pet bereavement and how to resolve your guilt (2024)

As Scarlett slumped, dead, in my arms, I felt my heart break. Worst of all was knowing I had done this to her. It was March 29, 2021, and I had just killed my dog.

It was I who had rung the vet and booked the appointment, and I who had cooked her final meal ( Best Ever Burger). It was I who led her into the surgery, lifted her up on to the trolley and held her while the vet put the cannula into her leg.

I'd nodded at the vet to let her start administering the deadly solution and I'd seen what no one else saw, a flash of reproach in her eyes, even as she fell lifeless into my arms.

It was the saddest day of my life, more heartbreaking, even, than the death of my elderly father six months before. That had felt like the right and proper closing of a circle and part of the cycle of life, with no decisions to make.

All we had to do was ensure we got there to say goodbye, send him well-loved into the night and then look after my mother as she grieved her companion of 57 years.

Susannah Jowitt with her dog Vesper, who she got two years before the death of Scarlett

Susannah describes the day she lost Scarlett as 'the saddest day of my life, more heartbreaking, even, than the death of my elderly father six months before'

The fact that this, the loss of Scarlett, made me feel worse was a source of guilt, of course. She was just a dog, right?

We'd done everything by the book, too, buying a 'transitional dog', Vesper, two years beforehand, so Scarlett could teach her the lie of the land and we'd still have a dog to carry on the dog-owning (and dog-loving) routine after she'd gone.

We had taken heed of the advice 'better a day too early than a day too late', and made sure to track when Scarlett no longer seemed to enjoy, or manage, her life. We didn't want her to be that dog on wheels, or in a pram. We knew she would have hated that.

So why did it feel so wrong? I think because I felt like god, and not in a good way. I felt like I had taken a life. All my dog had done was love me unconditionally, 100 per cent, every minute of her life. And what had I done to reward that love?

Meanwhile Vesper, no longer merely a transitional dog, was clearly wrestling her own demons: straight from her puppy litter into our arms and the larks with Scarlett, she had never been alone.

Now she was left at home by herself, when my husband, our children and I were all out and about. She wasn't having that. She howled and barked every minute we were gone. Not ideal when you live in a terraced house.

In time, with enough of my friends telling me to get over my god complex and realise Scarlett had had a good long life at 14-and-a-half years, and with the new dog needing my attention and training, I pulled myself together, because she was just a pet...

Until January this year, when my friend, the Killing Eve director Harry Bradbeer, called to tell me that his beloved dog Socks had just died.

'I'm just heartbroken, Susannah,' he sobbed. 'It's as if I've lost an extension of myself. I can't bear it. I knew you would understand.'

Scarlett with Susannah's son Winston at their family home

Susannah says Scarlett was the first dog she owned as an adult, and the first pet that she made the decision to put down (Pictured with Vesper)

As he spoke, I thought sadly of Socks, a gorgeously eccentric dachchua (a cross between a dachshund and a chihuahua) whom we had looked after a couple of times, immortalised as Socks, the Wonder Dog in the 2020 adventure film Enola Holmes, which Harry had directed.

'Oh Harry, I feel your pain...' I said, and then stopped. Because I did feel pain, but not his. Selfishly, it was all mine. A tsunami of misery and ugly grief for Scarlett swamped me, as overwhelming as it had been three years' before, and I couldn't actually speak for the physical feeling of loss.

Harry and I wept together that day and a few occasions after that. He is, after all, the man soppy enough to persuade Phoebe Waller-Bridge not to strangle the guinea pig Hilary in Fleabag, which he also directed, as she had done in her original theatrical monologue. Hilary, animal-lovers will be relieved to hear, went on to live a long happy life.

But where had my sudden, ugly resurgence of grief come from?

I wandered around the internet, looking for an explanation, which is how I found Dawn Murray, a 60-year-old Scottish pet bereavement counsellor.

Dawn is the founder of the new Association of Pet Bereavement Counsellors (APBC), which brings together UK independent counsellors to self-regulate what could become an industry of charlatans preying on, and profiting from, the vulnerability of others.

I tell her Scarlett's story — how she was the first dog I owned as an adult, and the first pet that I made the decision to put down; how I feel I didn't own Scarlett but that she and I were a unit, which is why I felt so bad about taking her life away.

She clucks sympathetically and says: 'Susannah, you are the very person that we are trying to get our message out to. No two people grieve the same, but we can help.'

For the first time in three years, I feel like I'm not being ridiculous.

It turns out I am suffering stages of grief, but not those we are said to go through when a human dies. The three stages of pet bereavement are very different — and the feelings of sadness themselves, says Dawn, are easier to resolve.

First, there is anticipatory grief, unique to humans since we are the ones deciding when our animal will die. The APBC offer pre-euthanasia counselling over the phone to address not only the agony of indecision about what to do with an ailing pet, but the ignorance of what putting them down actually entails.

Too often people start to mourn a beloved pet before it's even gone and are then consumed by guilt about whether they've got the timing wrong.

Dawn tells me about a small, elderly woman who suddenly had the strength to lift her huge collie dog down the stairs when he needed to go out, so strong was her grief (and denial) at his failing health.

Susannah says she still 'misses the feeling of closeness' she shared with Scarlett

'We are able to help people on that,' she says. 'We can take them through the euthanasia process and take the dread out of it, as well as reminding them that animals want quality of life too.

'Your Scarlett almost certainly didn't want to go on being as stiff and immobile as she was. And remember, everything you did was with the intention of just wanting her to be comfortable and at rest, so there's no guilt to be felt for that.'

Then there is disenfranchised grief — the 'just a pet' feeling which means you're not allowed to grieve for more than a couple of days before you pack away your 'self-indulgent' misery.

Dawn tells me about one client who had to call in sick to work because he couldn't face explaining to his boss why he was so upset.

'Yet these animals have been so central to our lives,' she says in her comforting West Lothian burr, 'that is it any wonder we miss them so much? With working from home, you and Scarlett probably spent more time with each other than you did with anyone else.'

I suddenly have a gut-wrenching flashback of the way I wrote my books from the sofa in our old kitchen, Scarlett curled up next to me with her warm, woolly bulk.

Poodles are always affectionate but not always as present as Scarlett: I still miss that feeling of closeness. Our son was often ill with a bad chest as a child, and he still remembers lying on Scarlett and feeling the enormous comfort she could give just by being there; we called her 'The Nursemaid'. How could this gentle soul be 'just a pet'? Absurd, Dawn and I agree.

Finally, there is 'incomplete grief', when you pay the price later for repressing pet bereavement and just keep on keeping on.

We both think this is what happened when Harry called me: his news opened the floodgates of my dammed-up emotion, over-whelming me with sadness as fresh as it had been three years before. Left untackled, this can manifest itself as prolonged grief disorder, a newly acknowledged mental health affliction.

'One chap rang and told me all about the death of his dog Lucky,' Dawn says, 'and how he hadn't come to terms with it at all and how it was now affecting his relationship with his current dogs because he was so frightened of them dying. Turns out Lucky had died ten years before!'

One chat with Dawn later — in which she worked out that he'd never understood the process of Lucky's euthanasia and had blamed himself for it ever since —and the man went away informed and comforted, able to see the wood for the trees for the first time in a decade.

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After an hour on the phone with a pet bereavement counsellor, my black grief and guilt have similarly gone. I have shared my 'daft' feelings with someone who didn't think they were daft and she has given me the immeasurable gifts of perspective and sympathy.

She has also reminded me that perhaps I am living too much in the past; that dogs themselves live only in the present. Indeed, we laugh, I should Be More Dog.

I think Dawn is probably one of the kindest people I have ever spoken to. She has been a pet bereavement counsellor for over 20 years, ever since she lost her mum and her much-loved dog, Caz, within a few weeks of each other and spent a lonely Christmas working out how to come to terms with it.

Since then she has lost more than 25 dogs and a few cats — so knows whereof she speaks — and married her 'wonderful husband' Dave, who has a good enough job to support her financially.

This financial help is important. For although, over the past two decades, Dawn has comforted hundreds of clients (often aged between 35 and 55, only slightly more women than men, surprisingly, but nearly all of them softies from the South of England), she has done it all for free.

She spends up to 16 draining and exhausting hours on the phone each week coaxing vulnerable and tearful people through their grief (mostly for dogs, but also for cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even a rat or two).

On her books at the APBC are counsellors both free and paid, which we agree is entirely fair enough because they are providing an expertise that saps their time and energy. However, Dawn is adamant she will never charge.

'I have always vowed that nobody would ever have to pay for me to comfort them,' she says. 'That way, this service is open to everyone and that's important to me.'

Later, I take Vesper for a walk and feel lighter than I have for months.

See: apbcounsellors.co.uk; livingwithpetbereavement.comAn e-book, Introduction to Pet Bereavement Counselling by Dawn Murray, is available on Amazon and free on Kindle Unlimited.

The three stages of pet bereavement and how to resolve your guilt (2024)
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