On Loving Pets...and Losing Them
Unless you have a tortoise or a Macaw, or received a kitten for your one hundredth birthday, you entered this relationship knowing that you would probably outlive your pet. That you chose to love with your whole heart, knowing it would one day most likely be broken, is the mark of an amazing person.
It is not supposed to be like this.
Just because mortality is constant, a given, an unbending truth, does not mean that it is right. We were made for immortality. We were not made for death. Separation is painful. We long for more, for what could be, for what should be.
It is OK to mourn.
We were not told not to mourn. We were told not to mourn as those who have no hope. We have hope. And mourning is healthy. In fact, it is the pathway to healing.
The pain may surprise you.
Sometimes, the pain is much stronger or longer lasting than expected. With the loss of a pet, we do not always have the comforting rituals of visitation time with family and friends, a funeral, or an official mourning period. You may need a memorial service or a symbol of remembrance. You may need help. Do not be afraid to ask for it or seek it out.
The stages of grief can be messy.
The “traditional” five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) do not always go in order or even show up at all. You may skip denial and bargaining, move quickly through anger, linger over depression and achieve acceptance, only to be overcome by a tidal wave of depression at the sight of a super cute shaggy dog being walked by your window a year later. So unfair! But it happens.
You did the right thing at every step.
Our pets depend on us to make so many decisions for them, including end of life decisions, that we are often left with second guessing and doubt after all is said and done. If there is an enemy in this story, it is death itself. You are the hero. Throughout the life of your pet, to the very end, you used every resource you had to care for them to the very best of your ability. Be kind to yourself now. Sometimes false guilt sneaks in when we are vulnerable. Sometimes sadness turns inward and masquerades as guilt. If you do not have the energy to show yourself grace, find someone who does. Friends and family are waiting to help. (Hint: Some of those standing by are human and some are furrier.)
The loss of each pet is different…and it is not.
Even if you have dealt with loss before, each situation is different, because each pet is different, each relationship is different, and each of our own life stages is different. And every family member will process the death of a pet differently. Experience is not necessarily our friend, though it can prepare us in the broadest sense. Sometimes it can even be a complicator of grief, especially when two or more difficult life experiences occur in a short amount of time.
Children mourn differently than adults…and they don’t.
The death of a pet may be a child’s first experience with mortality. They need straight-forward answers without euphemisms. (“Put to sleep” is off the table.) They may need to ask the same questions more than once as they process. Answer as much as you can emotionally handle, and do not feel as though you need to hide your own sadness from them.
The absolute best resource I have found for children was a gift from my Dad, Mr. Rogers’ picture book, When a Pet Dies. As helpful as it is for children, it has been even more helpful for adults I have known. I pull my own copy off the shelf when I am missing a personal pet or patient, and Mr. Rogers always seems to know just what I need to hear.
You will be ready for another pet someday…or you won’t.
I had a client who was so grieved over the loss of her wonderful old cat that she stopped at the shelter on the way home from the veterinary hospital and adopted a gorgeous black cat who looked almost identical to the cat she had just lost. I begged her not to, sure that she needed time and that she would expect New Cat to be Old Cat. I was wrong. What she needed was to not go home on the very same day that she had lost her beloved friend to an empty house for the first time in her adult life.
Another dear client had a little white Poodle that she taught to sign “thank you.” He always thanked me after his veterinary visits, which became more and more frequent towards the end. When he developed a terminal illness, she and her husband decided that after he passed away, they would never adopt a pet again. I was sure they would one day need a new dog, knowing what wonderful pet owners they were. I finally realized that they too were right. Maybe someday they will adopt another pet, but for now, they need this time to heal.
You will most likely fall somewhere between these two extremes in how new pets will fit into your life. And that is OK. Even if you do not know now does not mean you will not know. You will. And you will make the right decision when it is time to consider adding more pets to your family.
Getting to the other side of grief.
The goal is not to “get over” your pet, but to realign your life with your pet no longer physically present in it. Your heart has been broken, and it will heal, but it will heal in a different shape than it was before you knew your friend. You would not want to have never known your pet. You would not want your life to be the same as it was before you knew your pet.
I am so sorry that you had to say goodbye. Your pet was an amazing and wonderful creature. This is going to be hard, but I promise that you will be OK. You will get through this. Your pet was so very blessed to have you.
Have you ever dealt with the loss of a pet? What helped you get through the difficult times?