Last week Ardeth had a particularly difficult day. She attended the funeral of her best friend’s mother who died after a long and draining illness. She truly wanted to be a great support to her friend, Joan, but something happened that she just wasn’t expecting and it didn’t quite turn out as she had hoped.
Ardeth’s dog, Donut, almost 14, passed away a few months back. Ardeth and her kids all cried and shared stories about Donut, who was a part of their lives for a long time and who was very dear to them. Within a few days of his death, Ardeth and her husband packed up his belongings, gave away his leftover food, his bed, his toys, and safely placed on the kitchen fireplace mantle the pretty tin containing Donut’s ashes that their vet had given them. They were planning to hold some type of simple, but meaningful memorial for him with the kids and grandkids, but with the cold weather and life’s typical chaos and multiple obligations, they hadn’t gotten to it just yet.
Ardeth hadn’t known Joan’s mother well, but had liked her. She had arrived at Joan’s home after the funeral service, casserole in hand and visited for a while. Several friends and Joan’s extended family were gathered around Joan’s huge dining room table having coffee, when Ardeth felt a weight and a choking sensation in her chest and without warning, burst into tears. Instantaneously she found herself growing overwhelmed with grief and began to sob. She was quite embarrassed because everyone stared and she could tell they felt her reaction was disproportionate to her relationship with the deceased, and was therefore, kind of strange. At that point she had to leave the room and went into the bathroom to try to compose herself. She was unable to stop her sobbing for some time, and realized that she was crying for her dear little dog, Donut. This surprised her, but made her feel a little guilty too, because Joan and her entire family were all in the kitchen suffering from very intense grief over the loss of their mother.
After a while, Joan knocked at the bathroom door to check on Ardeth and invited her to talk privately in the backyard. When Ardeth revealed what had happened, Joan’s face drained of color and she appeared to be offended. She said that she could not quite believe Ardeth was making such a huge fuss about a dog when she had just lost the person she most cherished, who was a role model for her life. Ardeth was again embarrassed, managed to excuse herself and went home, feeling that perhaps she had destroyed a good friendship unintentionally and also wondering if something was wrong with her. After all, she had already shed her tears for Donut and life had moved on. She thought about him a lot, and certainly, the house seemed strangely empty when they returned from an excursion and there was no sweet terrier to greet them. At night, while watching TV with her husband, or paying bills in the living room, she would reach down to pet Donut, without thinking. Her eyes would fill up for a moment, but they were already discussing getting another dog. She had lost pets before and she had also lost multiple other dear family members. Ardeth did not really understand her own behavior.
What Ardeth experienced is quite typical in many respects. Those of us who are pet owners and pet lovers know very well that our pets are truly family members to us. They are not only a responsibility to us, but they comfort us, simply by virtue of their presence and their unconditional love, when we are feeling down. Margaret Muns, DVM, reports that “the grief experienced by pet owners after a pet dies is the same as that experienced after the death of a person.” She also says, “These feelings can be particularly intense for the elderly, single people and childless couples, (for whom the pet is often a child substitute”.
Children can also feel their grief with great intensity, though they often grieve for briefer periods than do adults. The crucial thing to remember is that there is no manual on the correct way to grieve, whether for pets or human loved ones. Each person is unique, travels through the grief journey at a different pace and in a different way. Another known occurrence is that grief recycles. Painful life experiences can linger and are known to reemerge when we move through new crises, though the circumstances may be completely different. In Western society nowadays, it is often thought that there is an acceptable time line for “getting over loss” and that people who don’t adhere to the time line established by someone else are “lingering inappropriately, have psychological issues and are not getting on with their lives”.
If you are someone who has had multiple past losses and heartaches in your life, even if you believe you have handled them in healthy ways, you may be surprised to find your feelings and memories once again are very raw and close to the surface when you suffer new loss, whether of a pet or person and your grief may linger longer. Thinking about your recently deceased pet may call up old anguish and sadness you believed were put to rest along with your mother, your late spouse or other people you held dear who are no longer with you. You may feel that the layers of grief are suddenly so many that is it hard for you to sift through the thoughts and emotions to begin to understand them and to be able to move forward with your adjustment.
If you are a religious person, you may take some comfort in whatever you were taught happens after death. However, not all religions are open to inclusion of pets in their messages of the Afterlife. I once attended a religious service for people grieving pets that I thought was very beautiful, sensitive and helpful. If this idea is not well received in your particular place of worship or denomination, perhaps you can enlist some friends (hopefully pet owners/pet lovers) who could help you plan a simple service or remembrance, not only for your own pet, but for others in your community. If local clergy people don’t seem receptive, try lining up a more neutral location like your public library meeting room, or community room. Planning such an event, which can be simple and small, or more elaborate, can be a healthy focus for you and for your family, and can be a very important step in your personal healing process.
For the majority of us, that old cliché of time being the great healer has validity, thank goodness, though we do not ever completely forget our loved ones or our past sorrows. This is true for pets and family members who have departed. My own family still tells anecdotes about our stubborn and mischievous Scottie, Charlotte, who has been gone for many, many years. We are also beginning to recount with smiles some tales that involved Danny, our most recent lost Scottie boy. I suspect that “Danny stories” will be an important part of dinner table conversation for some time to come when we gather together. For most of us, our losses and what we have learned from them are inseparable from who we are and how we travel into the future. We deepen our emotions and the core of who we are. How we respond to the world becomes more complex and hopefully, more compassionate and open to others, once we have processed our own feelings and allowed them to be fully felt, rather than pushing them down and trying not to permit them to happen.
There are other actions you can take to help yourself too. It is so important to permit yourself to express your feelings and the things your pet meant to you, to one or more people you trust, who will not berate you or diminish your right and need to feel as you do. That is all part of the necessary job of caring for yourself. Self-care while grieving a pet’s loss is just as important as it is when grieving a close human friend or family member. It is a known fact that we are physically more vulnerable and that our immune systems may not work as well as they should when we are bereft. Proper sleep and good nutrition, as well as plugging in to an understanding support system are key to getting through this trying period of time without compromising our health in a serious way.
If you can, take time to read about different stages of grief. Though your own process will not be a textbook example, you will probably find yourself comforted with the information of how it works and with knowing that you are normal. Don’t let others impose their time tables and expectations on you. I remember a time shortly after the death of my first husband, when I located and attempted to join a class/support group for young widows and widowers. I needed to be with people who had endured similar pain and who had found tools for coping. I was told, however, that it was “too soon” and that I would not be allowed to join the group for another six months. I was horrified and infuriated and refused to accept that answer.
I told them in no uncertain terms that I knew what I needed and either they let me join or I would begin my own group. They then opened up the group to me and there I found some peace, support and needed solace, as well as making new friends. It was an invaluable part of my healing journey. There were members in that group who did not want to speak much at our meetings, but who simply took comfort in the presence of others who understood their feelings. Per loss groups are not always easy to find, but if you feel you would benefit from one, why not try to get one started or even contact me for ideas or resources?
After a loss, when you find yourself crying a lot or unable to get on with the business of the day, sometimes it helps to give yourself a gift of “mourning time”. Decide how much of a block of time you can set aside and set a timer for 30 minutes, an hour, or whatever you feel is appropriate for you. Let yourself feel what you need to feel, shed your tears, look at photos and think about favorite memories. When the timer goes off, dry your tears, get up and get on with the day or evening. You will find yourself feeling much lighter. If you need to do this often at first, don’t berate yourself and just go with it.
Another thing you can do is sit down and write out your feelings or record some memories of your pet that are happy and that you cherish (even if they make you cry a little more). If you are artistic, try your hand at drawing or painting a picture of your pet, or make a photo collage for the wall or on your computer. Write a poem, if you are so inclined, or go online and visit The Rainbow Bridge website or others like it ( http://www.petloss.com/rainbowbridge.htm ) and read poetry about beloved pets that have died. It will probably hurt a lot when you first begin, but you can find yourself really getting involved in it and feeling quite good about the endeavor. One day, what you created to memorialize your pet will be cherished by you, just as you cherished your pet. Paying tribute to a lost pet and reflecting on your loss helps you with closure. Kids especially love being involved in creating such projects and helping them do this is often therapeutic for adults. If you don’t have children of your own, try “borrowing” a niece or nephew or a neighbor’s kid and ask him or her to help you with a fun project to honor the memory of your pet.
Know that the intense emotions you are experiencing will eventually subside. If they don’t, there is nothing shameful about needing to get help. Don’t be embarrassed about grieving for a pet. You were not embarrassed about loving your pet while he or she was alive and it is natural to feel what you are feeling. It is sad that for the most part, society does not give permission for us to grieve for our furry family, but we need to give that permission to ourselves. If you feel ready for a new pet, don’t rush into it but also don’t let others dictate to you what is right for you and for your life. You cannot and should not expect your new pet to replace the one you have lost. or to make your sad feelings go away. Your departed pet was a unique being. A new pet, when you feel ready, may ease your heartache and make you smile and that is a healthy and a good thing to do.