Pet Cremation Mistake: Breaking the Bad News

Question from a reader: I wonder if you could give me some advice. Recently our pet cat died and we decided to have her cremated so the ashes could be scattered in our garden. I have just learned from our vet who sent the cat to the crematorium that accidently our cat was not labeled and was mass-cremated. It now leaves me with a dilemma as I know my partner will be distraught about this. Should I get another set of ashes (which my vet says they can supply) or should I tell her the truth? I honestly don’t know where to look for advice on this. I hope you can point me in the right direction. Thank you.

Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC, responds: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your cat, and sorry too to learn of the awful mistake that was made in the cremation process. Through no fault of your own, you’ve been placed in a very difficult position. Please understand that you know your partner far better than I do, and you know yourself as well, so any advice I can offer will depend on many factors that I know nothing about. That said, all I can tell you is that, if this were me and my cat, I would want to know the truth.

You say that if she knows what happened, your partner will be distraught—but it seems to me that such a reaction on her part would be perfectly normal and understandable. If you tell her with that attitude in mind (understanding that she has every right to be outraged and upset about this), it may help you deal with her reaction.

Perhaps you are afraid that she will blame you for this, or that you will be the target of her anger, and you don’t know how to respond. It may help for you to play this out in your mind ahead of time. If you were to tell her what really happened, what would you say to break the news? What words would you use? Knowing her as you do, can you predict how she may react?

Would you be able simply to let her feel her feelings—that is, to let her react in any way that she might, and know that you can withstand her reaction? Can you simply listen calmly and without judgment so she can express all her thoughts and feelings about this, even if her feelings seem neither fair to you nor rational? If she lashes out at you (wanting or needing someone to blame) can you let her do that without accepting her accusations as justified, but merely as an expression of her feelings at the moment?

It may help to remember that feelings are neither right or wrong, or good or bad, and they’re not always rational, or fair or justified. Feelings just are. But once they’re expressed, worked through and released, they usually dissipate. Finally, once your partner learns the awful truth, can you think of what you could do to comfort her?

It seems to me, my friend, that this won’t be the only time in the course of your relationship that you’ll be confronted with very bad news. There will be times when you simply cannot protect each other from the truth. Only you can decide whether you can be truly honest with each other about things like this, so you can face and work through the harsh realities of life together.

I thought perhaps this article I wrote may be of some help to you and your partner as you come to terms with this. Even though you don’t have your kitty’s cremains, the love you had for her will be with you always, as long as you keep her memory alive. If you read the article, I think you’ll understand how it might apply to your situation: Explaining Pet Loss To Children.

I don’t know if what I’ve said is helpful to you, but please know that I’m so sorry this has happened, and regardless of what you decide, please know too that I wish you all the best.

[Note to other readers: If you are faced with making end-of-life decisions for your own companion animal, I strongly encourage you to learn what your after-death-care options are before your animal’s death. When you’re struggling to cope with the pain and trauma of loss, you’re not in the best position to ask intelligent questions and make an informed, well-thought-out decision about body care. Make sure that your choices are based on your own values and beliefs, and that they meet your emotional needs and financial requirements. See, for example, Body Care for Your Companion Animal by Laurel Lagoni.]

© 2012 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

Reach Marty through her Web sites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com, or her Blog, http://www.griefhealingblog.com

Marty Tousley

More Articles Written by Marty

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at tousleym@aol.com or through her Web sites, at GriefHealing.com, GriefHealingBlog.com, and GriefHealingDiscussionGroups.com.

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  • Jodi Clock says:

    I’d like to chime in if I may. This entire situation regarding the “mistake” made regarding the cremation process “can” and “could have” been eliminated through a little due diligence. This is a situation of people (the pet parents and the vet clinic world) “Don’t know what they don’t know!”

    There is a national association called the PLPA (Professional Pet Loss Alliance) that is working closely to educate both pet parents and vet clinics on the proper death care of a pet. There are numerous pet loss providers that provide the same dignity and care for the cremation of a pet as a human. These pet loss providers adhere to stringent self imposed standards and protocols to ensure that a private cremation is just that. Private. Not partitioned private or communal. Sadly – many vet clinics work with “waste managers” who don’t follow these standards. In fact many vet clinics receive a profit from these types of organizations therefore they either don’t tell the pet parent of their options and let the pet parent make the decision of what cremation provider to select, or the vet clinic is truly unaware of PLPA certified professionals.

    To add to this topic, many accredited PLPA members also are “CPLP” (Certified Pet Loss Professionals” who have pet grief specific certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning.

    Consumers need to ask “who” is cremating their furry child. Will it be private? Is the cremation provider a PLPA certified business. To learn more about the PLPA – please refer to their website http://www.iccfa.com/groups/pet-loss-professionals-alliance.

    Pet parents do have a choice AND they have recourse to prevent this from happening to others.

  • Jodi, thank you so much for sharing this important information ~ and of course, I agree with you completely. As I said, the time to do this due diligence is BEFORE the death of a cherished animal companion, not after, when the family is in the midst of the pain and sorrow of grief. Sadly, when we make the decision to bring a feathered, finned or furry friend into our lives, we must recognize that in most cases, our animal’s life span will be considerably shorter than our own, and it is inevitable that one day death will come to our companion. Far better that we accept this reality and prepare for it ahead of time. As you say, nowadays there are many reputable pet loss providers who value and adhere to the standards set by their professional organizations, and it is up to us to educate ourselves ahead of time, so we’ll know where to find them when we do need their services.