Greetings in the new year of 2016. I hope everyone’s holidays were warm and meaningful, and happy. Even if, even though, especially if, you have suffered a loss and are grieving.
If you have recently lost a pet, I want to send you some very special compassionate caring. Losing a pet can catapult us into some of the deepest grief, and there are a few unique reasons why.
First, the relationship with my animal is sometimes simpler – less complicated – than my relationships with humans. Pet-love can be one of the few places where I give and receive what feels like “unconditional” love. My critter doesn’t argue with me, doesn’t resent me when I fall short of being perfect, doesn’t have any axes to grind with me, doesn’t even have emotional expectations of me. My pet accepts my care, reflects my own love back to me, and offers me their simple loyalty and dependence. Plain and simple. They don’t worry about what I think about them, and therefore their actions are totally sincere and non-manipulative. In their eyes, I am perfect (well, almost). Where else can I get that? Losing a pet can feel like losing the purest form of love.
Second, in many cases, a pet owner faces the excruciating moment of having to decide about euthanizing – putting their friend “to sleep.” This power over life and death can be daunting to say the least, bringing with it doubt, guilt, overwhelm, and helplessness, in addition to grief and loss.
If euthanasia is not involved, it can still be difficult treating an illness or injury, since our pet can’t talk to us, and we can face painful challenges around financial and other choices we have to make. And sudden loss brings its own hardship.
On top of all this, not everyone gets it. It’s easy to feel alone when people say insensitive things. In most cases, people are just trying to be helpful: “You did the right thing – at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” It’s hard for them to see me in pain and they awkwardly try to offer relief. Often they miss the mark. When this happens, not only do I miss my pet, I also feel acutely alone. Unfortunately, there can also be people who REALLY don’t get it, who will say hurtful and even cruel things like “It’s only an animal,” or “You can get another one,” or even “You should just get over it already.” In the field of grief and loss this is called disenfranchisement: situations where one’s feelings are invalidated or made wrong. Being treated this way can cause feelings of anger, isolation, and self-doubt.
Here are a few things that can help with pet loss:
- Take the time you need to be with your feelings.
- Take time off work.
- Don’t listen to anyone who intimates that this bereavement “doesn’t count.”
- Be as authentic as you can. Don’t pretend like everything’s ok, if it isn’t. Let the people who will understand know that your animal has died and that you are grieving.
- However, be discerning about who you talk to about your grief. Some people will get it; some won’t. Don’t expect understanding from everyone.
- Create some ritual or acknowledgment of your pet’s passing: place their collar on an altar; create a gravesite or special outdoor place; invite a few close friends, who knew your pet, for a special meal, or walk, or other activity, in remembrance of your pet; make a donation to an animal shelter in honor of your animal.
- If you have other pets, watch them for signs of grieving. They might be feeling a sense of loss or confusion, too. Whether you see this or not, you can allow yourself to take comfort in the warm touch of your other animals: hugging, holding, petting and even crying.
- Find a pet loss support group. Often, just a few meetings can be really helpful. Veterinarians, animal shelters and emergency hospitals may know of current groups in your area.
- Consider grief counseling if you are having a particularly hard time, or if your grief is causing you concern. Grief has a way of accumulating, and it’s not unusual for the grief from past losses to resurface with the loss of a pet.
- Take your time getting another pet. There are no “rules” here, but it can be good to allow yourself some time before bringing another animal into your life.
Blessings on you as you go through this time. As with all loss, if you are able to open to and say yes to the grieving process, you may find unexpected (bitter)sweetness and learning, even in the midst of the difficult challenge of losing your dear friend.