By Becky Murray, CVT, MA, LCPC —
Hi all! Thanks for joining me again. In this blog post I want to talk about advice. Good advice, bad advice. Advice from family and some from complete strangers. Because when our four-legged family members are sick, dying or have passed on to the Rainbow Bridge, everyone seems to have some advice.
I thought of this topic when two of my dogs died in the past few years. My job requires me to know a lot about loss and grief. I talk to many people daily about loss. But when my dogs were dying, I had a difficult time making decisions. I searched online for a fix despite the fact that I have dozens of specialists I can talk to every day. I thought, “This is so unfair,” and “How did this happen?” I know the answers to these questions, but I was running on emotion, not logic. The information I give to my clients about coping with loss is simply easier said than done.
I think most of the time advice is well-meant. Sure, we might run into someone who is thoughtless and says something insensitive. But usually, people want to help us during times of duress. No, the problem with advice is not (usually) its intent. The problem is that advice is often not appropriate, or not what we need.
Let me address the “not appropriate” part. Sometimes advice is merely given without all the pertinent information. Sometimes it is based on misconceptions or incorrect information. So, you might say that your cat has cancer and are deciding whether or not to pursue treatment. A well-meaning friend might say “I would NEVER do that to my cat”. This statement might be based on personal experience with chemotherapy (in a human or an animal), on rumors she has heard about chemo, or a lack of understanding of a bond with a companion animal. Conversely, she might say, “you HAVE to do everything you can to save your animals,” because of a positive experience with cancer treatment, an inability to cope with loss, or even guilt about an animal that she felt she did not do enough to save.
None of these factors, however, affect you or your pet. Only you know anything about the family’s resources, including time, transportation, and financial status, or the temperament of the cat (a very important factor in deciding about long-term treatment). Also, even if the person is basing the advice on experience, most likely the situation is still different. The type of cancer, the stage/grade, the age and type of animal, how well your animal copes with veterinary visits…all of these factor in to your unique experience.
Another reason why advice might be inappropriate is that the person giving it is not invested in the loss. That does not mean they do not care. They probably are worried about you. But, as I stated towards the beginning of this blog, it is very easy to give advice when it’s not your heart that’s breaking. So, when someone says “you don’t need to get their ashes back”, or “you should pick up all of your dog’s things and get them out of the house”, or “it’s time for you to adopt another cat”, it’s just easy to say those things. They are not the one who will feel guilty for picking up the dog bowl or adopting again, or who will feel lonely without the ashes.
So, why is advice often unhelpful as well as inappropriate?
Well, usually people’s advice is given from the perspective of what they need and want. That doesn’t help you if your needs and wants don’t match theirs. I have found that what people need and want before, during, and after a loss is widely varied. I have seen families who adore their pet ask for no memorial of any kind, stating that they have their memories. Other very dedicated families have their pet cremated and keep the ashes in the house, get fur clippings, paw prints, jewelry to hold some ashes, the list goes on and on. I know people who adopt a new animal immediately after a loss, people who always have multiple animals so they don’t have to face that choice, and people who have not adopted again years after a loss. It is very common for a couple to have two different ways of coping with grief, one very emotional and the other pragmatic. These couples often end up aggravated with each other’s behavior.
So, what do we need aftera loss if not advice?
Support. We need people to say “What do you need?” instead of “You need…” “What can I do?” instead of “I think you should…” We need people to tell us that the way we are coping with the loss is OK. We need to hear “Do you want to talk about your pet?” not “Maybe you should get a new puppy!” If you are coping with a loss, just remember that the advice you are given is not necessarily what is right for you or your pet. It’s just one option. Don’t feel pressured to take that advice. And all of us can do our part by being careful not to give out advice to people experiencing their own losses.
Becky Murray is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT) that counsels clients of VSC and our referral community on pet loss, quality of life decisions for pets and grief. She also lectures extensively in the veterinary community on Compassion Fatigue. You may reach Becky at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about our services may be found here.