Pets often act as a tether to deceased loved ones

Many years ago, when I was far-less experienced with pets and my current area of specialty, I was sitting in the waiting area of my vet at the time with my girl, Gretchen, who was in to be seen for something seemingly minor — allergies, as I recall. And despite my anxiety that it might not be so easy to address (it wasn’t, but I digress), it became clear to me that other families in the room just might be dealing with something far more difficult.

A woman, who in my youth seemed old to me — maybe in her seventies — was nervously comforting a black Lab, whose muzzle appeared to be unable to get any more grey. Arthritic, clearly blind and very hard of hearing, the dog seemed to comprehend the words or at least the sentiment that her now main human spoke to her in a voice and cadence that I’ve heard a thousand times since with my families and would sputter out in my own, just thirteen or so years later.

It’s going to okay, sweetie, I’m here. No need to be scared. The doctor will take good care of you. Your dad always made sure that you got an ice cream cone on your way home from the vet. Remember how he let you ride in the front seat — shotgun? You always loved that…

The woman glanced at me at she spoke, wearing an expression as if she’d been caught in a lie. It became clear that she was just doing what she could to get through that very difficult day that reminded her of a previous one, after an even more difficult decision. As she looked at me once again, more words whispering out, almost asking for understanding, support, no judgement.

She was my husband’s dog. He loved her so much, and she him. He died two years ago and I promised him I’d take good care of her. And I have… I think. Her bones are so old, and she just can’t manage anymore. I feel like if I talk about the ice cream and the car ride home, she’ll understand that he’ll be waiting for her, and that this is the last thing I can do for her — for him — yes, for him.

I’ve never forgotten that moment. Or countless others that have illustrated examples of how pets often connect their caregivers to deceased loved ones — family, friends — even times of their life that have been meaningful to them.

Like the brief, almost arm-grabbing words from a caring spouse as they nervously usher me into the house to meet the family dog who was experiencing life-limiting age-related decline — and their husband, who is trying to maintain a tether to his deceased parent.

I don’t know if he told you… his mother died from cancer three years ago; he inherited her dog.

And the mother of a young professional who learned he’d die far too young from a terminal diagnosis, and loved his dog so.

Mama, you have to take care of her. Who else will do as good a job of being a caregiver as you’ve taught me?

(And she has, above and beyond, even after the dog developed paralysis just 2 years after taking custody of them.)

And years ago, the retiree who relocated to Michigan and needed a pet sitter now and then.

I inherited Hattie from my best friend after she went under the care of hospice, in Arizona. After she died, I realized Hattie was all I had left of her, besides memories. Now, Hattie participates in all of the girl talk, the fun outings… she’s the Thelma in our Thelma and Louise. And she hates the snow, by the way, just like my friend.

I learned early on in my chosen profession that people are motivated to tend to other living things for reasons far more profound than we can ever imagine. I’ve discovered that the stories of people that I’ll never meet are more resonant and alive in their pets, and that bridges a gap between this existence and one that we can’t fathom. I understand more than ever that a pet isn’t just a pet: they are much more.

The life choices of these humans are often governed by the pets that they’ve taken as their own after their loved one dies. They’ll often go to the ends of the earth to see that the pet is tended to. That tether to that person can often easily act as a guide, or a double-edged sword when it comes to seeking the kind of care that a pet needs when they are seriously ill, or when things change due to life-limiting age-related decline or diagnosis. Some folks run toward the prospect, no matter how scary, even hurdling their own fearful relationship about death and dying in the process. Others, well, I’ve seen giant blinders come up like force fields of denial — the ones that only those of us who work intimately with families of pets experiencing a certain level of fragile health would recognize a mile away, as invisible as those mental barriers may seem.

No, this can’t be happening. Not right now. He’s always okay. Always. He’s all I’ve got left of [insert person’s name here]. He’ll pull out of this with no problem. The vet is smart, right? I don’t understand — why can’t they see that it’s just a little bug that he’s got? Can’t they just prescribe something? You know what this dog means to me, right???

And no matter the situation, good or not so, without judgement, shaming, guilting, second-guessing, I walk alongside with these humans and their pet — or pets, in some cases — as they navigate familiar or novel territory with the knowledge that there is an unseen but very-there presence accompanying us. I honor what the pet represents in the person’s or family’s life. And I tread mindfully, as always.

Lorrie Shaw holds a certificate in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning and is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She’s also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

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