Here are some of my more private thoughts about pet loss and grief. Sadly, I have had some experience with pet loss. As a pet lover from the time I was a small child, I have learned that loss and grief is a natural part of the human and animal bond. I will share these very personal thoughts in the hopes that they will be of some small comfort or help to you in your time of loss.
Grief is Normal, Expect it to Hurt!
Remember that you are not alone. It may feel as if you, alone, are the only one who has ever felt such pain. Rest assured that others, at some point, have experienced the pain as well. While everyone deals with their grief in their own way, many have shared similar experiences.
It is okay to feel grief and loss. Do not let others trivialize your feelings. Accept the fact that you are in pain and that tears and grief are a natural part of the healing process. It helps to talk. Beware of the “it’s only an animal” attitude of others. In my opinion, friends who can’t understand (or who can’t at least be supportive whether or not they understand) are not worth having.
Also watch out for the “Oh, for heavens sake, get over it” syndrome. I have experienced this attitude from others in the past. I consider it a comment made out of ignorance. No one who has ever truly loved and lost a pet will utter these words. Your feelings of grief are normal and natural… and they are your feelings. Don’t let others impose a guilt trip. It’s hard enough as it is.
Feelings of Guilt are Normal, Remember You Acted Out of Love (pictured above, Reggie who recently passed after 12 awesome years together)
I have experienced both the pain of sudden loss, such as finding a beloved pet dead unexpectedly. I have also experienced the pain of having to make the final sacrifice out of love to help my beloved pet “cross the Rainbow Bridge”. From my experience, there is no easy way. It never gets any easier. I think when a loved animal passes suddenly, that thoughts of self-blame and guilt, and/or self-questioning are perfectly normal. When my eight year old cat Geezer died suddenly in his sleep, I beat myself up for weeks wondering whether I had given him the correct medication dose, did I accidentally give him the wrong pill? Could I have seen it coming? Our vet assured me that no matter what I did with the medications my animals were on at the time, no mistake could have killed Geezer. The vet also advised that most likely Geezer died from a burst aneurysm, which could not have been prevented or detected. Still, I beat myself up mentally wondering. I have since come to realize that these types of mental mind games are not unusual. I experienced similar feelings whenever a pet passed away suddenly. Remember that it’s not your fault!
OK, so is it any easier when you have to make that final decision? When your veterinarian and your pet (yes, your pet) tell you it’s time, there is never any tougher decision you will ever make. Again, my experience taught me that grief plays strange mind games. While my head tells me that I acted out of love in the best interests of my pet to prevent useless suffering, my emotions and heart scream “You murderer, what have you done!” Again, I think feelings of guilt are perfectly normal even though you have nothing to feel guilty about.
Another common “guilt trip” associated with having to make the final decision is self recrimination afterwards about the questions “Did I wait too long?” or “Did I do this too soon?” Try not to beat yourself up over this one. From those I have spoken to, I firmly believe that you and your pet are the best judge of when this decision needs to be made. As long as you acted out of love, with your pet’s best interests in mind, the timing will take care of itself.
After having to help my kitty, Hoot, cross the Rainbow Bridge, I agonized for days, even weeks, experiencing an instant mental replay of Hoot’s final moments. I had to force myself to put it out of my mind, reminding myself that I wanted to remember Hoot as the happy and healthy cat she was. Well, I have since discovered that others have had this same experience. Try to remember the happy times with your pet. As for the final moments, simply remember that it was the last gift you gave your loved pet. No one says it is easy, but you did it for him or her.
Okay, It Hurts! So What Helps?
I really believe that everyone needs to deal with their grief in their own way. However, I will share some things that have helped me during my worst moments. Not all of these suggestions may be right for you, but I hope you find some idea that helps. Listed in no particular order:
(1) Keep a tribute journal or notebook. Jot down memories and thoughts as they come to you. They can be lists of little details, favorite stories, or simple a list of your pet’s favorite nicknames. One of my big concerns in times of loss is my fear that memories will fade. This is one way to keep your pet’s memories with you. It is also a very theraputic activity. In times past, I would jot notes on scraps of paper here and there. Just going through the process helps.
(2) Along the same lines, create a photo album tribute of your pet, create a web site, or post a memorial on a pet loss web site. I grew up with a beagle mix named Brownie. I was in college when she passed away. To help my parents and me I had a large wall portrait of Brownie done in oils. The artist used an old photo to make the portrait. To this day, it hangs on the wall of my parents’ home and brings back happy memories. Better yet, have a portrait done while your pet is with you. You will appreciate it later!
(3) If you have the talent, create a cross-stitch tribute or other art media tribute.
(4) Make a donation in memory of your pet to a charity of your choice. You will be helping a good cause and also helping your own healing process. Likewise, consider donating time to pet related volunteer work. It will take your mind off your grief and also do some real good as a tribute to your loved pet.
(5) Adopt a stray that might not survive otherwise. After Chips passed away, I desperately needed to adopt another dog from the pound that might not have another chance. By so doing, I took comfort in that thought that Chips’ death was not in vein. That by her passing, she saved the life of another. That is when we got Tippy. Let your next best friend pick you. There can never be a replacement for the special one loved and lost, but there are plenty more animals that need your love.
(6) Plant a memorial tree. When my parents lost their Cairn Terrier, Pepper, they planted a pine tree on their property as a tribute. It has since been called “the Pepper tree” and each Christmas it is decorated with lights in honor of Pepper. This is a good way to ease your loss and to keep the memories alive.
(7) Keep your pet’s toys and bowls, collars and licenses. It sounds silly, but it is a tangible memory that you can keep. It is a way of holding on! I recently bought a very well worn dog collar with a tag dated 1928 from an antique shop. The collar held no particular memories for me, but I could just picture someone saving it for years as a memento. It seemed to deserve better than just being left on a shelf in a shop.
(8) Remember to deal with your grief in your own way. It may help to talk, to tell pet stories and share memories. Remember the good times… Memories are our pet’s greatest legacy. Keep the love in your heart… and be thankful for the time together whether long or short…
(9) Books on pet loss are a great help. When you share the thoughts of others, you realize that you are not alone. You are not “nuts” and that the feelings you experience are in fact, quite normal. Don’t fight the grief, but rather accept it as a part of the healing process. There are also some terrific web sites that convey the message that it is OK to grieve.
(10) Keep your own faith… I never let others insist that animals don’t go to heaven. (Well okay, they can say it since that’s “free speech” but I ignore it). I envision my pets that have passed as young, healthy, and happy at the Rainbow Bridge…hoping to be united.
(11) Little rituals may help. At Christmas each year, I place a small plastic tree on the table next to Brownie’s picture. On my hutch, I keep a white rose next to Chips’ photo. Seemingly silly things can help ease the pain. It’s also a great way to keep the memories alive.
Is There a Silver Lining?
I really like Maria’s line from the Sound of Music, that when the Lord closes a door, He opens a window. I like to trust that there is a bigger picture that may not be readily apparent. Our kitty Gumby was terribly afraid of Twiggy, another stray we adopted. Gumby was so terrified that he spent most of his life hiding in a closet. We sadly lost Twig when he was only twelve years old to brain cancer. It was a good year or more after Twig was gone that Gumby came out of hiding and rejoined the family. It certainly hurt to lose Twiggy, but in the end, we gained some precious time with Gum.
You may not have a silver lining story as such, but I also like to think that the pain suffered with your loss is a trade off for the love and companionship enjoyed over the years. Remember that those who have not felt the pain also have not felt the love and joy. And how sad and shallow is that?
I believe that our beloved pets are animal angels sent to us for a purpose. Their time with us is a precious gift, whether long or short. In the long run, trust yourself and trust your love for your pet. When grief attacks you with thoughts of guilt and self-doubt, remember the gift you gave your pet. If your pet was a shelter animal or stray, keep in mind that that you gave your friend the gift of life and a loving home. And if you had to make the decision to help your pet “cross the bridge” in the end, think of it as your final gift. Remember that every day you and your pet had together was a special gift to you both… celebrate the life rather than dwelling on the loss.
And time does heal. As the days pass, the pain will ease. It will still be there from time to time, but the pain will lessen. And you will feel better for longer and longer periods of time. Just as it is OK to grieve, it is OK to heal. As time heals the pain, it also dims the memories. So, keep your tribute journal, photo album, or web sites. Do whatever you can to keep the beautiful memories alive in your heart.
Comments welcome: How have you dealt with pet loss? Do you think any of the above ideas are helpful?
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