The death of Ben Fogle’s dog: his honest grief is helpful to us all

Ben Fogle has written a moving piece in the Sunday Telegraph about the loss of his Black Labrador, Inca. At twelve years of age, she had lost the power in both hind legs. Ben made the right decision for Inca, but it was still terribly difficult to go through the process of euthanasia. His article is unusually frank, with Ben describing how he “burst into uncontrollable tears” on the telephone when talking to his veterinary surgeon father, Bruce, about the situation. Then later, Ben describes the actual act of euthanasia:

“I carried her from the car into the house, burying my face into her fur, and laid her on the kitchen floor. Mum, Dad and my sister were all there. “I lay on the floor, hugging Inca while Dad injected her. Her breathing became heavy. I could feel her heart pounding and the warm blood beneath her skin. I breathed the familiar scent of her fur as I nuzzled into her thick coat. I have never sobbed like that in my life. It was a primal, uncontrollable, guttural sob as I felt her heart stop beating.I lay there on the kitchen floor clutching my best friend, unable to move. Wishing, hoping it was a dream, I held her lifeless body.”

Many readers have commented on the online version of Ben’s article, with some describing how tears were streaming down their face as they read his words.

Ben’s account will come as no surprise to vets and nurses: we witness people going through the emotional trauma of losing a pet every day, or even several times in one day.  Perhaps the only surprising aspect is that the depth of grief isn’t discussed more commonly in public. It’s as if it’s only behind closed doors that it’s acceptable to express this level of grief for an animal.

The private nature of grief for pets can make it doubly difficult for some pet owners to cope with their emotional distress. They feel deeply upset, but they may feel that it’s somehow  ”not right” for them to be so distressed. To an owner, the loss is as deep – or sometimes even deeper – as if a human friend or relative has died. To society at large, the loss is still ranked as minor, with people making heartless comments like “It was only a dog”. When a human dies, a wide leeway of sympathy is given, with time off work, and sensitive understanding for many weeks. When a pet passes away, people are often expected to “get over” their loss almost immediately.

Behind the scenes, there’s wide recognition of the emotional distress caused by the loss of a pet. The Society of Companion Animal Studies runs a Pet Bereavement Support service, in conjunction with the Blue Cross. This offers support by trained counsellors for people who need someone to talk to after a pet has died, both on the phone and by email.

It’s also increasingly recognised that veterinary staff can be emotionally traumatised by the daily witnessing of deep grief: after all, there are not many jobs where, every day, you need to offer support to grown men (and woman and children) as they cry their hearts out. The suicide rate of vets is around seven times the national average, and the complex nature of pet euthanasia is thought to play a role in contributing to this. Vetlife is a website designed to provide resources to help vets and nurses cope with the stress of their daily job.

Ben’s account is sad to read, but it’s heartening that he expresses his emotions so openly. If more people like Ben spoke out so clearly and truthfully, it would make it easier for those many individuals out there who still feel that have to hide their deeply held emotions.

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