“Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives.” – John Galsworthy
A Commonly Uncommon Connection
The loss of a pet is as painful as any other loss we experience. We have unique relationships with our pets that deserve the time and care to be mourned as we would for any other family member. This article is about coping with that loss.
When my little Chiquita, as we affectionately called her, came into my life over 12 years ago, it was an unexpected but very exciting beginning to a new chapter in my life. My little Chiquita quickly became my little buddy, more like my little shadow, following me everywhere I went. Every morning I would leave and it would break my heart but also made it burst with a most elaborate welcome home at the end of every day.
Of course, we went for lots of long walks by the beach, in the woods, up mountains, she was a fearless little Maltese and as they say, what she lacked in stature she made up in spirit. I took her with me everywhere I could (benefits of a small dog), the office when possible, running errands, visiting friends, anywhere and everywhere, we were kinda inseparable.
It was just her and I for a few years, with lots of people coming and going in our lives, she was my constant, and although I had many other positive relationships in my life, her’s was different, as they say with human relationships, you never love two people the same, I would say the same is true with our beloved pets, our relationship was unique and special.
Needless to say, losing her this past August has been as difficult as I always knew it would be. It’s one of the heartbreaking realities for pet lovers, that our pets have a short life and we will be faced with having to say goodbye long before we are ready. As is the case when any family member passes, they leave a void with their absence.
However, unlike when a human family member passes, where there is social recognition and understanding, that does not typically extend to the loss of a pet and for this reason, it can make the loss that much more difficult to deal with. Pet owners, can feel the need to move on and shame even that they are having difficulty with the loss. The grief process can feel rushed and forced, which prohibits us from giving the grief the room that it needs to heal.
Grief And Loss Is Grief And Loss!
The pain and loss we feel are real, regardless of the form that they come in. I speak about loss issues with my clients very often, and typically it is not around death, but loss in general. The loss of a relationship, a job or health, are all losses and merit time and a process to come to terms with the changes this creates in one’s life. And, the loss of a pet is the same in that it needs to be taken seriously as the effects are the same and can lead to depression and prolonged grief if not processed appropriately.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross made the grief cycle famous years ago, I remember learning about it in my “Death and Dying” social work class in the 1990s and it was dated then, however it remains as a helpful framework to guide us through our grief process. The grief stages are viewed with more flexibility today, acknowledging that many people don’t experience all of the stages and may go in and out of several of the stages at different times depending on the circumstances surrounding the loss.
However, these are still some of the hallmark stages that one can expect to experience. The graphic below highlights the ups and downs we go through with each of the stages.
What Does Grief Of A Pet Look Like
1. Impact on Identity. Much like that of children our pets are completely dependent on us, to feed them, take them out for walks, and give them the care that they need. This can give us a sense of purpose and is one of the benefits of having a pet, an increased sense of self that caretaking can give us.
When this is lost, it can impact our identity, no longer being a pet owner or seen in the neighborhood walking your dog. After all, what is a “crazy cat person” without their cat?
2. In the denial stage, this might look like an adjustment and acknowledgment even, that your pet is no longer with you. After losing my little Chiquita, I would sometimes imagine that she was still at home waiting for me, the sense of rushing home to make sure she was taken out or fed was still there, sometimes I would even feel like she was sitting next to me on the couch.
Our pets are different from our human relationships in that if we are home, they are there with us. Home can feel very different without our four-legged buddies.
3. Increased loneliness and emptiness are other aspects of grief that coincide with pet loss. Our pets are relationships and their pure devotion to us is something that many people need and long for in their lives and rarely find in humans the way they can be felt with our pets. My mother would often chuckle how our Cocker Spaniel growing up was the only one in the house that didn’t answer back.
It is true, our pets are pure in their loyalty, protection, and love for us. I guess you could say it has all the benefits of that best friend without the complication. Yes, they upset us at times with a present on the carpet or misbehavior on a walk, but then they look at us with those eyes and it all seems to fade away.
How To Cope
1. Give your grief space and time.
There’s no right or wrong way to cope with a loss, it is an individual process and you need to allow yourself to go through the process that you need to go through. I hope that this will be one of the biggest takeaways you will have from reading this article.
Internalizing your grief and telling yourself to snap out of it might be an instinct but will create more emotional turmoil in the end.
2. Find your support.
Despite the fact that there may be some social pressure to “get over it”, there is also a lot of support out there and there are people who do truly get it. Many of us have gone through the loss and know the pain and heartache that comes with the loss of a pet. I would encourage you to be honest about it and if you can take a few days off from work, do so.
When I lost my little Chiquita this past August I took a bereavement day and although I had colleagues tell me to take more days, I didn’t, as I felt the best thing I could do was to get back into my daily life and keep moving forward, despite the reminders all around me of her loss. Make sure that you take the time to grieve the loss of your beloved pet, it’s ok and it needs to be encouraged. If you have a therapist this is a good place to process this grief, there are also many resources in the community or through your vet that could help you connect to support around the loss of a pet.
Here is an online resource that might also be helpful. I know that finding a therapist these days can be challenging which is why I have partnered with an agency called Online Therapy that aims to bring therapy to people virtually from anywhere in the world. You can access this service with my affiliate link where you can get 20% off their service for the first month. If you have access to technology and don’t need to use insurance this may be a great option.
3. Find a way to memorialize your pet.
Sometimes we avoid thinking or talking about our pet because it’s too painful. I would offer the challenge of running towards your sadness rather than running away from it. It will be hard but it will bring more peace and resolution around the grief. Sometimes our beliefs about what happens to those we love, human or non-human, factor in, and there are some unknowns but if we can do what we have control over, that is creating a memorial, it reminds us that they were loved and cared for regardless of where they are now.
One of the most comforting things for me during this period was a card from my vet with a beautiful message about the rainbow bridge. Although I knew of this metaphor, I needed to be reminded. It still brings tears to my eyes as I read the card but it also gives hope that my little one is ok and we will be reunited one day.
What My Human To K-9 Connection Has Taught Me
Knowing that I would one day have to say goodbye to my little Chiquita helped me to be more present in every day with her, feeling gratitude for the companionship she offered and for the time we were together. I talked about gratitude in a recent post, “A Gift to Yourself… Finding Gratitude”. and is one of the many lessons she has taught me on this topic, as I am not sure I have ever been as present in my appreciation of another relationship as I have been with her.
Knowing that our pets have short lives, can help us to live more fully in that gratitude which is a life lesson that we could all benefit to learn from. I hope this article brought you some comfort and perspective on your own loved and possibly lost relationships with your pets. I welcome you to please leave a message below and share your thoughts and experiences on this topic.
“I’m not there with you today, but know I haven’t gone astray. I am the wind blowing through your hair and the warmth you feel in the air. When that smile creeps on your face, remember that I am in a good place. And when you’re feeling sad and down, recall memories of me running around. You don’t need to look low and high, just search way deep inside. And know that we’ll never be apart, for I have left my pawprints on your heart.”
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Written By Meredith Flanagan Originally Appeared On Upside Down Flan