When a human family member passes away, our loss is generally shared or at least we are given support by those are sincerely sympathetic. We are allowed to grieve, to show and experience our emotions more openly.
But talk to a pet owner who has ever lost a pet and you might hear a completely different story. To those of us who have ever lost a furry, feathery, or scaly friend, the loss is just as heavily felt as if it would be if a human family member had passed away and yet others might not see it that way. They don’t understand to what depths a person may be hurting. Some of them may even go so far to make insensitive comments such as, “it was just a pet” or “why don’t you just get another one?”
What Do Pets Provide Us With?
When someone loses a pet, thy don’t just lose one thing, they lose many things at once. For one thing, our pets provide us with unconditional love. They provide us with responses that are uninhibited by concerns by what others may think. When you wake up in the morning your dog is happy to see you, when you leave for work and return your dog is happy to see you, when you leave the room for five seconds and come back your dog is so happy to see you she acts like she hasn’t seen you in five years. When you leave the house to go out with your human friends it may not be that simple. Human relationships can be riddled with negative things like anxiety, being rejected because you’re not meeting someone’s expectations or some other fear that may dictate how you behave or things that you share with others. Animals are not like that. They do not judge on imperfections and insecurities. Not only that, but pets are basically our “life witnesses”. You might do things in front of your animal companions that you would NEVER do in front of anyone else. They are there in times of weakness and in times of strength. And in during times of the former, they are often providers of security, stability, and comfort.
If you’re like me, your pets are or were your primary social companions for a variety of reasons and what those reasons are vary between person to person. For me, my Scarlett (and now Pilot) was my best friend in the entire world. I knew that if no one else in the world understood, Scarlett somehow would. I could talk to her about anything in the world and I knew that she would never pass judgement upon me. I like to say that Scarlett knew more things about me than anyone else did and when she passed in 2015 the loss of that was hard to deal with. Not only that but there was also a significant loss of something else too.
For many pet owners, not only are their animal companions their friends but their pets might also be something else. Having a pet means that you are entirely responsible for another living, breathing, being. We often go to extreme lengths to ensure our pets’ emotional and physical comfort. We may schedule specific activities just for our pets that revolve around them which can include anything from providing them with pet sitters and dog walkers to provide them with company and exercise, taking them to the doctor and providing them with medicine to make sure they are healthy, taking them to places like the dog park to provide them with social activity, or even taking them traveling with us. For a pet owner, losing their pet is right up there with losing a child.
So, what can a person do to help themselves through such a difficult time?
1.) Be kind and patient with yourself. The loss is real and very painful evoking intense emotions and memories. The grieving process has no set “finish line”. Remind yourself of that any time you find yourself wishing that you were better or that you should be past it by now. Putting pressure on yourself to “get over it” only makes things worse.
2.) Find a support system. Try to find an ally, someone that you know you are comfortable sharing with. If you can’t find anyone there are plenty of resources online that may help. Both the Pet Loss Grief Support and Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement have online chat rooms and memorial services.
3.) Engage in a ritual. We humans have several prescribed ways that we mourn our losses. We have funerals, we erect memorials, we have anniversaries where our loved ones are acknowledged. You could have one of your own by having a service in a spot favored by you and your pet, or maybe you could hold a small service at home.
4.) When it comes to figuring out what to do with your pet’s things you might want to do it gradually. Gradually transition their things to other locations from where they usually were kept and this may help with the transition before you remove them. When you are ready you may donate them to an organization that helps animals in need, seal them in a trunk, whichever you choose. When my Scarlett passed, I took her dog tag off of her collar and placed it on my keychain.
5.) Memorialize your pet. I chose to memorialize my pet through writing my book, which I also found was a great way of helping me process my feelings on what happened. You may choose to do something else, like planting a tree or sowing a garden. These living memorials can continue to be reminders for years to come.
While we may not all of the answers, it is important to remind ourselves that there is no definitive “right answer” on how may deal with our losses and that everyone deals with their losses differently. BUT it is also important to remember that while it may feel like it times you are not alone.
“Happiness can be found in the darkness of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore