When someone close to us dies, our loss is met with sympathy, comfort and offerings of condolence. We are allowed to grieve. We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to experience our emotions.
But when the death is that of an animal, the story is very different. Often, others fail to appreciate the depth of our grief. Some may even display gross insensitivity by making comments like, “Why don’t you just get another pet?” Mourning an animal companion is painful enough due to the loss itself. But it may be deeper still due to the loneliness of this type of grieving.
Why are the feelings so painful?
Loss of unconditional love. Our companion animals don’t judge insecurity or imperfection. They are all-accepting in ways few humans can achieve.
Caretaking. Loving an animal
is much like being
Animals as life witness. Our animal friends not only provide us with their uninhibited emotional expression, but allow us to express parts of ourselves that we may never let other humans see.
Many goodbyes. We must say goodbye to each role the animal occupies – friend, child, significant other –- as well as to feeding time, walking routes and all the aspects that made up our practical routines. So many goodbyes need time and patience.
What might make my grief more complicated?
Guilt. If we perceive that we could have done something to prevent the death, the duration and severity of our guilt can be intensified. For those forced to make the excruciating decision to end the life of a beloved animal, grief is further aggravated if we are plagued by doubt over our choice.
Grieving timeline. Grief gets derailed when a timeline is imposed: “I should be better by now,” or “Why is she still so sad?” This results in the opposite of what we’re seeking, which is to work through our feeling of loss.
Reawakening an old loss.
A companion animal’s death may remind us of a previous loss, whether animal
or human. If we failed to come to terms with the earlier death, it is
especially important not just to mourn the lost animal, but
Resistance to mourning. In our efforts to cope, we may suppress feelings so as to not appear weak. We may fear that the tears will never stop once we let them begin. Whatever we use to defend against our true emotional experience will complicate our natural progression of grief.
Letting go of grief is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as a betrayal, as though trying to feel better equals trying to forget. But we’ll always love the animals we’ve lost. Healthy grieving means getting through it – not getting over it.
What can I do?
Be patient. Anytime you find yourself wishing you were “past it” remember that emotional processing has no set endpoint. You’re in mourning. By pressuring yourself, you’ll only make yourself feel worse.
Find an ally. Find at least one safe person you can talk to about your loss, or explore other options at these Web sites: The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, at www.aplb.org; or www.petloss.com, which has chat rooms and online memorial services.
Taking stock of your companion’s life. You can do this by writing, or sharing with an ally. What are some special memories? What will you miss the most? Such an overview can help cement the things you want to make sure not to forget.
Rituals. Humans have funerals and wakes to help us grieve and keep our loved ones in our hearts. Create rituals for your animal companion. Have a ceremony in the dog park, at home or in a place special to you both. Create a living memorial by planting a tree or garden.
This is a sorrowful time. There will be occasions when we won’t have answers to our painful question, or activities to quell our longs. But ask yourself: What would your companion do if he found you sad and in pain? Give you love, give you comfort, stay with you as long as it took. That’s worth remembering – now, more than ever.
Healthy grieving means
Reprinted by permission of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Author, Julie Austin, Psy.D.