As pet guardians, one of the most challenging experiences to live through is the loss and grief of our beloved companions. Death is a part of the natural life cycle of all living beings. Yet, when we acquire a pet, we intentionally, or not, sweep the notion of pet loss right under the rug facing it only and unless necessary.
Avoidance makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as our brains have evolved to avert pain, not embrace it. When we acquire a young sweet puppy or live with a thriving pet, we may not even consider the differences in the speed of aging between humans and dogs. The end is not near, yet time moves quickly. Our infant dog quickly develops into a puppy and is an adolescent by six months. By year two, they are adults, and if they are well cared for by age seven, they are seniors, and some dogs like mine live to become geriatrics at 17 years.
When living and bonding with our companions, end of life, grief, and their associated stages, are overlooked. Yet, when our pet is thriving, it is precisely this time of life that we ought to hone skills to support ourselves through the overwhelming future trauma to come. The likelihood of our pet passing before us is high and preparing ourselves on some level long before the event allows us to come to terms with the inevitable. Preparing may not lessen the feeling of future pain. Still, it does help us remain proactively present in our pet companion's lives and helps map out a pathway for healing for ourselves.
Myths about the Grieving Process
Some of the myths affecting healthy grieving include: Don't feel bad, replace your loss as soon as possible, grieve alone, not in public, grieving takes time and ends, keep busy to forget your loss and be strong. None of these statements can be further than the truth.
Western society has embraced our pet animals as family members; however, grieving their death remains a nuance best tolerated by other pet guardians. The relationship can be transformative for some, like myself, who have been blessed to spend almost two decades living together with the same pets. Our pets help shape our personal decisions on where we live, how we vacation, who we date or marry, and even our professional choices. So many personal experiences are shared with our pets.
Losing a pet is different from the loss of a human friend. And those who live and care for their animals understand this. Animals fill our lives. They are our silent confidants who understand us without words and allow us to expose our authentic selves without judgment or retribution. Pets become part of ourselves and, in some cases, our identity. When a pet passes, we are counseled by well-intended people in our lives who genuinely care for us. They might suggest "just buy another dog," "just rescue a dog. There are so many that need a home", "get over it," and "be happy it wasn't a real family member; that would have been worse." Understandably, discussing the loss of a beloved pet makes certain people uncomfortable. Many are at a loss for words, and others cannot relate because they have never lived, loved, or cared for a non-human animal.
When we experience the loss of our pet companion and try to come to terms with their absence, the pain can be almost unbearable. We reflect on years of cultivating a solid and trusting relationship where much of our lives was focused on keeping them healthy and safe from harm. For those of us who have had to decide to help our pet pass on whether at home or elsewhere, we struggle with being the ones to make that final decision and question if we should have waited or waited too long causing more suffering. Disbelief and denial flood our minds filling us with dread regardless of whether our pet died suddenly, or the passing was carefully planned.
And so, while it may be confusing, even tempting to treat the loss of a pet differently than a human, it is the same grieving process. It is okay to take your time for as long as you need. There is no need to rush to acquire another furry friend. Take the time you need to grieve and honor your pet and the relationship you shared. Find comfort instead in their memory as they continue to be an important part of your family history.
The Anatomy of Grief
The initial shock of our pet's departure, regardless of whether we are prepared, affects people differently. After losing our pet, we may awaken in the middle of the night from sounds we confuse as our pets only to realize it is the wind. We may go about our day passing through doors, pausing to hold them open just a little longer, waiting for our pup to follow behind us. Pet toys and bowls may intentionally be left out as reminders or replacements for their physical presence. We consider moving their beds only to realize two months have passed, and they are not returning. Our rational mind struggles with our emotional mind trying to make sense of it all as we can still "feel their presence” even though we cannot see, touch, or hear our pet companions, yet we still feel them close by. And while it all might seem irrational; the fact is we experience a separation from someone important to us. Our memory recalls our friends well, and holds on to our experiences. Because the mind always remembers them, and it can be hard to let go.
Grieving is about emoting, period. There is no rationality, only feelings expressed through behaviors such as crying and depression. It is a personal journey that takes a short amount of time for some people and a much longer time for others. It is normal and necessary to take time to process the loss of a pet. During my recent loss, the best advice I received was to be kind to yourself during this process and allow yourself to be in the moment of grief. We are supposed to be feeling sad, yet I found myself trying to keep my mind busy instead. What was most healing for me was honoring my friends by sitting still for moments and processing the pain.
There are five stages of grief which you can expect to experience
Disbelief and denial. This is when we reflect and consider things we could have done better
Anger. During this stage, we may alienate ourselves from others and feel overwhelmed.
Guilt. An emotion of anger turned inwards. This is typically self-imposed and guilt.
Depression. Great sadness overwhelms us, and during this stage, we may not want to get out of bed or just sleep.
Acceptance occurs when the heavyweight of sadness is lifted, yet their memories remain.
Anne Beyke of petlosscounselor.com explains that it is normal to reach the endpoint of acceptance and then cycle back through guilt and depression. This happens because we love our pets and have a deep connection. This can go on for months and, in some cases, years. That said, if we feel "stuck" and cannot function or move through the stage of depression to the point of clarity, it is best to seek professional counseling with a therapist who specializes in pet loss. Pet loss counseling differs from other therapies and finding the right counseling matters. Support suggestions:
My companions of 17 years, Jimmy Choo and sister Stella passed at my home a few months ago. Fortunately, I was able to reduce my work hours and spent time with them, providing home hospice care. It has taken some time for me to move through the stages of grief. I have made a few mistakes along the way, including jumping back into life and working too soon only to find myself crying in front of clients.
My friends, clients, and colleagues have demonstrated great love and support, especially during the beginning stages, and I continue to work on healing in conventional and non-conventional ways. Some unconventional ways have provided me great peace, including a shrine I built for my dogs. The altar is set up in my living room. It includes pictures of my dogs and family together, candles, a lock of each of their hair, their footprints, and their ashes secured in a beautiful rosewood box. How long the shrine will remain is unknown at this point. For now, it represents my gratitude to them and my honor to have served as their guardian in life. I will be forever indebted to my friends for helping to transform my life. To help me become a better person, the person I am today.
Forever in my heart
Jimmy Choo and Stella