One night in one of the many groups I have run, a member came in very distraught. Sitting down, she began crying and said “I hesitated sharing this, but I am so upset I have to speak about it – my twelve year old beautiful golden Lab, Star, named for our midnight walks, died this past weekend.”
Instantly the group responded with condolences, gentle questions, and concern. Then, one man tearfully said, “I need you to know something I have never told anyone. The day that my dog Caesar died, I rode around for hours with him on the back seat of my car. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him; I didn’t know where to go or what to do.” From there the group began to share and bear witness to the loss of pets from as far back as early childhood- beloved companions, never forgotten.
There are 38.2 million cats and 45.6 million dogs as well as many other companion animals in the U.S. Statistics estimate that 62% of U.S. households own a pet which equates to 71.4 million homes. This reality equates to a great deal of joy as well as considerable pain and grief when a pet dies.
The cherished relationship that most people have with pets is loving, mutually affirming and of physical and emotional benefit to all. Pets are loved in a way that allows them to be prized for their unique qualities, accepted and even loved more for their imperfections. For some, the pet is the sole companion; for others, a cherished member of the family. When pets die – human hearts break.
No One will Understand
As seen in the group described above, a perspective that adds to the pain and can complicate the grieving when a pet dies is the assumption that the loss will be minimized and the reactions of the owner questioned or critiqued. While this may still be true in some cases, the increased number of pet owners has started to shift the recognition and understanding of this loss. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) was begun by Wallace Sife to provide support for those who have suffered pet loss.
Guidelines for Coping, Grieving and Healing
Over the years as people have shared the trauma and loss of beloved pets with me, I have found that Judith Herman’s stages of recovery including establishing safety, remembering and mourning, and reconnection are a valuable basis for some guidelines for coping, grieving and healing.
Do It Your Way – Entitle yourself to have your feelings and to grieve in your way and in your own time. Recognize that family members or partners who have also loved this pet may need to cope and grieve differently.
Seek Physical and Emotional Safety – Pets die from old age, illness, some are euthanized and sadly, some die from neglect and mistreatment. Depending on the circumstances, secure as much comfort as you can for your pet, yourself and your family.
- Missy – Keith and Joan were aware that Missy, a seventeen year old cat was becoming weaker and weaker. In that last week they adjusted their schedules to tend to her in a way that they felt gave her comfort and actually helped them share her passing.
- Lucky Seven – While Dan recognized that Lucky Seven, a very special beagle and his sole companion, could no longer stand and was losing bodily functions, he was frozen by the vet’s suggestion of euthanizing him. Desperate and feeling guilty he called his daughter, a new mother struggling with some post-partum depression. In the way that family members will often step up when they recognize need, she with baby in tow and her husband to help, left the house for the first time in a month to accompany her Dad and his beloved Lucky in his final moments.
- Dinga- The drowning of their puppy, Dinga, was an unbearable and traumatic loss for Cassie and Mike. It ushered in the helplessness, horror and blame associated with such trauma and tortured them with nightmares, “what if’s,” and anger for each other. It was hard for them to realize that their reactions were understandable and that their anger masked their grief. Seeking some professional support offered the safety they needed to mourn and heal together.
Don’t Take the Journey Alone- As seen in the cases above, reach for the support of others. Grieving is emotionally and physically exhausting. Take the risk – you may well be surprised at the compassion of someone near you.
Making Meaning-Understanding what you are facing and feeling fosters psychological safety. Books like Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Lost a Pet; Good Grief: Finding Peace after Pet Loss; and The Loss of a Pet can be very valuable and soothing resources.
Remembering and Mourning- Much as our identity is captured in the story we tell about ourselves, part of that story includes the relationships we have had with our pets.
- Friends and family remembered and cherished the story of Scubby the family cat who found Hammer, the family dog collapsed on a neighbor’s porch and stayed with him in his last hour.
- Everyone heard about Gismo, the 17 yr old cat close to death himself, who changed loyalties from Maureen to John when the First Responder suffered a heart attack and was bedridden. Sitting on John’s bed for two months, Gismo died two weeks after John returned to work – his mission accomplished
At the beginning of the grieving process we often can’t stop thinking of the pet we lost. Eventually we choose to cherish and remember.
Entitling yourself to remember, write down, frame pictures, tell stories, commemorate the bond you had with your pet is invaluable in the healing process. It is not about letting go but re-defining and holding on to your pet in your mind and heart in a certain way.
- Re-connection happens on a number of levels and in different ways for different people.
- Re-connection to the other pets and people in your life with less and less pain does not mean less loyalty or love to the lost pet. It means going on with life and memories.
- Re-connection to a new pet at some point is a personal choice. It does not equate to replacement. In fact, it often keeps the memory, comparisons and joy of all the pets very much alive. BUT it is not a choice anyone has to make.
- Re-connection to self is crucial in bereavement and healing after the loss of a pet. If you recognize that every pet invites you to grow, love, and expand in some way, than after the loss, you are re-connecting to a self that has been permanently changed by your pet.
Maybe there really is “More room in a broken heart.”