One of the most common questions I get, when I talk about hospice and end-of-life care, is how a person can discuss their choices regarding their pet’s care with other people who don’t understand or agree with the decisions they’ve made. This is a challenging problem, in both directions – there will always be people who don’t understand a decision to invest time and money in a pet, and people who don’t understand a decision against aggressive care.
More and more, it’s actually becoming easier to discuss these decisions. Our culture is coming to recognize the important roles that animals can play in our lives, and the strength of the bond between people and their pets. From workplaces offering pet insurance to companies making greeting cards and thank-you cards for and from pets to the prevalence of pet-friendly hotels and vacation facilities, pets are being recognized as part of the family unit. Still, that doesn’t protect us from the questioning and judgment of people who don’t – or can’t – understand the decisions and choices we make, or who accidentally hurt us with well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful advice.
(And for those of you who are friends or family to people facing pet loss, it can be hard to know what to say or how to help them. That’s another complicated topic, that deserves its own post in the future.)
So – what do you say to someone who tells you that ‘it’s just a cat,’ or asks why you’re putting so much time and energy into what they perceive as a replaceable thing? Or to someone who feels that your decision to stop chemotherapy or avoid surgery is giving up too early?
I wish I knew the way to answer this, in such a way that would lead to universal understanding and compassion. Unfortunately, the best solution I’ve found is to politely establish your emotional boundaries, and redirect the conversation. When it comes to issues around end-of-life care, grief, and loss, we all have so many emotions and so much personal history invested in these subjects that it can be impossible to change people’s minds – the best path I’ve found is not to try to create converts, but just to clarify one’s own position.
What do you say, then, to do that? I’ve found that something along the lines of this can work:
“I appreciate your opinion, and respect you as a [friend/cousin/coworker] – but the human-animal bond is different for everyone, and this path I’ve chosen is the one I feel that best honors my bond with my pet.”
If they want to learn more, feel free to explain, or share some resources with them – some people have just never encountered the concept of hospice for pets before, or are unaware of the choices available when it comes to pain management and end-of-life care. But if they persist in pushing their point of view, and don’t respect your decisions, it’s also okay to let them know that what they’re saying is hurtful.
Most people honestly want to help – sometimes you can deflect their well-intended words by giving them another way to help instead. An offer such as “I understand that you mean well, but this is a very difficult time for me, and right now your words are making things more difficult. If you want to help, what I really need from you right now is….” And let them know what could be most helpful for you – whether that’s a hug, quiet acceptance, reassurance, a ride to the pharmacy, or anything else that may either ease your stress and emotional burden or help you face your current challenges.
The most important thing you can do, overall, when faced with challenges like this is seek out people who *do* understand. Find a pet loss support group, either local to you or online. Talk to your veterinarian or their staff. And, ultimately, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or having trouble coping with either loss or the burden of caring for a chronically or terminally ill pet, talk to a grief counselor. Regardless of what anyone else says, your feelings and your choices are valid – and you deserve to have the support of people who understand that.