Providing grief support since 1999
Providing grief support since 1999
One of life’s great treasures is the relationship that human beings develop with their pets. Not everyone has this opportunity; indeed it isn’t something everyone wants. But for those who do, pets become our companions, and often substitute children. A family pet may be a dog, cat, hamster, horse, donkey, bird, fish or any other creature with whom we develop a special relationship.
Many of our pets live with us in our homes. They may sleep with us. They are constantly at our side on shopping trips, vacations or daily walks. They seem to understand us. They accept us the way we are and even keep secrets! We learn to know if they are not feeling well. We understand when they are reminding us that it is time to eat or time for their daily walk!
When a family pet dies, the experience of grief is similar to mourning the death of a person we have loved. It is a significant loss that should not be ignored and we do well to pay attention to this loss before beginning to move on with our lives.
What you may experience.
Sadness: The relationship you had with your pet was unique and you may be surprised initially that you are overcome with sadness. Since we cannot always be in control of our pets, often they die tragically and this increases our sadness.
Loneliness: You will miss the friendly greeting when you come home, their presence around the house, the daily routine of having them with you. While many pet lovers will experience a deep loneliness, those who live alone may find the loneliness overwhelming.
Guilt: If the death was tragic, you may feel responsible for your pet’s death and guilty for letting it happen. Perhaps you didn’t recognize that your pet was sick and feel guilty for not receiving help earlier. One unique source of grief pet owners experience is around the issue of euthanizing our pets. For the most part, when humans are sick and dying, we let life run its course. With our pets, we are often left with the responsibility of making the decision that enough is enough. This is often made with the advice of your veterinarian who will help you make the right decision. No matter how carefully you made the decision, you may experience a certain amount of guilt.
Anger: There are many reasons why you may be angry. You may be angry with your veterinarian for not being able to keep your pet alive, the driver of the car who killed your pet, or the illness that ended your pet’s life. Depending on the circumstances of your life, you may feel this is one more loss among many that you are experiencing. Perhaps you have had a spouse, parent, sibling or a child die recently. You may be angry that life is dealing you this additional blow.
Unsupported in your grief: People who do not have pets often don’t understand the significance of the death of a pet. They may even tell you that you are overreacting. You may be angry with these people for not giving you the support you need. As we have already said, the emotions following the death of a pet are similar to those we experience when someone we love dies. The journey through grief is also similar. The following will give you some ideas for dealing with your grief.
Give yourself permission to grieve.
Be patient with yourself and the process. Don’t let others tell you how you should be feeling and don’t let those who don’t understand tell you to “get over it!” Your grief is your grief and it is a normal and healthy part of living to mourn the loss of someone or something important in your life. If you feel like crying, then cry. Take time to feel your pain and express it.
Create an appropriate way to memorialize your pet.
This will, of course, be determined by where you live. Your pet may be cremated and then ashes buried in a garden or scattered in your pet’s favourite place. It may be that your pet’s body can be buried on your property where you live. You may want to create some sort of ritual for the time of the burial. A rock, a tree or bench may mark the place where your pet is buried. There are pet cemeteries in some communities and your veterinarian or local funeral director will be able to give you that information.
Find someone with whom you can talk.
Don’t isolate yourself from others. You need their support and comfort. Your friends who have pets will understand. Don’t try to be “brave” with other family members. Remember that they are also grieving the death of this significant family member. You may find it helpful to ask your veterinarian or local funeral director for referral to a bereavement counsellor or pet loss support group.
Involve the children in the family.
The death of a family pet is often a “teaching moment” for the children. It gives adults an opportunity to teach children that for “everything under the sun… there is a time to be born and a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Be honest with children. You may have the opportunity to prepare them for the death, but above all, be honest. When the death occurs, tell the children the pet has died. Don’t tell them the pet has “gone away” or worse still, that the pet is “missing”. When we involve children, we do them a great favour, since we will be preparing them for the inevitable death of a loved person of their family.
A pet as small as a goldfish may be the first opportunity a child has to learn about caring for another living creature. When the fish dies, it may be a significant loss for the child. Encourage the child to cry, to express feelings and to ask the inevitable questions about death. Children often have insights adults are missing and may have the perfect idea for what to do to memorialize the pet.
It is usually not a good idea to rush into getting a replacement for this pet.
Pets, like people, are individuals and can’t be replaced. It isn’t helpful to try to get an exact replica of the one who has died. It will take time for you to adjust to the fact that this beloved pet has died. You may take time to dispose of your pet’s belongings. When you feel ready, remove your pet’s feeding dishes and bed. You may decide to keep items like a tag or collar. Do what you feel like, when you feel like it. When this transition has taken place, you may begin to think about getting a new pet. But you will never replace the one who has just died.
With every death or significant loss, it is important to take time to grieve. It is, however, equally important to begin the process of moving on with life. The memories of this pet will be with you for the rest of your life. Let the memories comfort you. Let your relationship with this pet be the foundation upon which you will build a relationship with a new pet if you decide to bring another into your life. When you are ready, a new relationship can be developed and a new life created with another pet with whom you can hopefully share the next few years of your life.
When your pet dies, how soon should you get a new one? Until recently, the standard answer has been “right away!” That may not always
be the best advice, however: Obtaining a new pet before you have had time to work through your grief can cause problems for both you and the pet.
So when is the right time? There is no single answer to that question, because everyone experiences grief in their own way. For some, the loneliness of an empty house makes grieving more difficult, and a new pet can help the process. Others, however, may feel resentful toward a pet obtained too soon.
The time to obtain a new pet is when you have worked through your grief sufficiently to be confident that you can look forward to new relationships, rather than backward at your loss. For some people, that might be a matter of days or weeks; for others, it might be months or years. Regardless of when you choose to obtain a new pet, however, the following suggestions can help you ease the transition and make the new relationship more rewarding for you, your family
If any emotion rules supreme when a pet dies, it is guilt. No matter what the circumstances of the loss, guilt is there, grabbing us by the throat. It haunts our days, ruins our sleep, and tarnishes our memories. Often, guilt goes beyond the loss itself: we may start to feel guilty for just about everything.
Guilt on the Rampage
If a pet dies through an accident or moment of carelessness, built is quick to follow. Perhaps someone wasn’t careful about opening a door, and the pet ran into the street to be hit by a car. Perhaps someone fed the pet a hazardous treat – a splintery bone or forbidden bit of chocolate. Perhaps someone overlooked a hazards-an electric cord, or a bit of string. When something like this happens, guilt closes in quickly. If only I had known…if only I had been more careful…if only I had come home sooner…if only I had been watching….the final memories of the pet become a litany of failure.
If a pet dies of an unexpected illness, the litany is often similar. Why didn’t I notice the symptoms sooner? Why didn’t I visit the vet immediately? Why didn’t I get a second opinion? How could I have let it go so long, been so blind, done so little?
Euthanasia is the grand master of guilt. No matter how certain we are that we are doing what is best of the pet, few pet owners actually fell comfortable with this decision. Very few can walk away from the vet’s office without nagging doubts, without wondering what the pet felt or thought in that final moment, without asking whether we should have waited longer or tried harder. Many of us feel guilty of literally murdering a family member.
Why do we feel this way?
We are believers in cause and effect. When something goes wrong, we want to know why. How did it happen? What went wrong? Could it have been prevented…and if so, how? Who is responsible? What could/should have been done differently? Rarely can we acknowledge that there are no answers to these questions. Rarely can we say, “no one was at fault; it simply happened.” Rarely can we accept that nothing could have been changed or done differently.
This reaction is intensified by the profound sense of responsibility we feel toward our pets. Pets occupy a similar role to very small children: No matter what happens, we are responsible. We can never expect our pets to understand why they shouldn’t run into the street, chew on the electric cord, or filch scarps from the trash. We are always their guardians and protectors. And so, when something happens, we view ourselves as responsible for that as well – and it is only a short step from feeling ‘responsible’ to feeling
From Guilt to Redemption
A little bit of guilt, for the right reasons, can be healthy. Next time, we’ll vaccinate; next time, we won’t feed the pet bones or scraps. Next time, we’ll consult the vet immediately about that odd behavior change.
A lot of guilt, however, is not so healthy. Left unchecked, it can prevent us from seeking the joy of a new pet – and can even ruin our lives. I’ve spoken with pet owners who have suffered from guilt for years. So if you can’t shake the sense of being ‘to blame’ for your loss, you could be in for a long, rough ride – unless you choose to change direction.
Notice that I said ‘choose.’ While we can’t always control how we feel, we can control how to respond to those emotions. We can choose whether to control those emotions, or whether to allow them to control us.
Nor is guilt simply an emotion. At its core, guilt is a belief—a conviction that we have done wrong and must suffer for it. The only way to break that conviction is to change what we choose to believe. Here are some choices that can help you take the upper hand over guilt.
1. Choose not to rehearse guilt. Do you find yourself repeating the same guilty thoughts over and over again? They won’t go away by themselves. You must choose to make them stop. First, catch yourself. When you find yourself wandering down that painful mental path, put up a mental stop sign. You might choose a physical action, such as snapping your fingers to remind yourself to change directions. Then deliberately focus on something else, such as your plans for tomorrow. Focusing on something positive in the future is a conscious reminder that there is more to your life than negatives from the past.
2. Choose to accept what cannot be changed. A self-imposed ‘penance’ for past mistakes accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t change, or make up for, the past; it simple ruins your future. Chances are that you’ve already changed anything that needed to be changed (such as vaccinating your other pets). Can you change anything else? Can you undo what was done? Can you change the outcome of your actions? If the answer is ‘no’, choose to accept that answer. Accept that the only thing you can change now is your future.
3. Choose balance. Guilt keeps us focused on the times we imagine we failed – the times we were ‘too busy’ to take a pet for a walk, or play with it or cuddle it. It blinds us to all the other times when we weren’t too busy. So the next time your mind drifts into those unhappy thoughts, choose to refocus. Actively remind yourself of the good times, the times when you were, indeed a responsible and caring pet owner. (Chances are that was most of the time). Flip through your photo albums. Write down a list of things you did for and with your pet. Force yourself to remember what went right. Recognize that there is, and always has been, a balance between your failure and your successes. No, you weren’t 100% perfect. But neither were your 100% flawed.
4. Choose forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some abstract religious concept. It is a rock-bottom necessity in any relationship. Thank about it. Could you have had a relationship with your pet, if you couldn’t ‘forgive’ the puddles, the torn drapes, the gnawed belongings, the broken heirlooms? Pet owners who can’t forgive don’t remain pet owners for very long. It worked the other way as well: how often did your pet ‘forgive’ you for coming home late, or ignoring it or yelling at it? Forgiveness has always been at the foundation of your relationship with your pet and how you need to make it the foundation of your healing. Each time gilt tries to remind you of some past mistake, acknowledge that mistake- and forgive it. If you did wrong, fine, it’s done, it’s over and it’s time to move forward. Treat yourself with the same degree of love and acceptance that your pet gave you. Only then will you be able to heal and love again.
Pet owners who ‘don’t care’ will never experience the pangs of guilt. Only caring, responsible pet owners go through this agony. The trouble is, too much guilt can prevent you from becoming a caring, responsible pet owner again.
The world has enough people who don’t care what mistakes they make. It doesn’t have enough pet owners who do care – who choose to learn from their mistakes and move on to make a difference in yet another pet’s life. Don’t let guilt keep you locked in a lifetime of misery. Choose to forgive, to love and to move forward. The world needs you.
Moira Anderson Allen,M.ED
There is a good chance that when you have given any thought to grief, it is usually in negative terms. A woman said to me recently, “I hate feeling this way!” Most people do. Grief is such a mix of intense emotions that most people wish they could be over it within a month of the death. However, it is important to understand that recovery from the death of a beloved pet does not happen quickly. It also helps to understand what things help and what things hinder our recovery.
There is such a thing as good or bad grief. First let’s look at what is not helpful when you are grieving.
What doesn’t help?
Other problems in your life. Are there sickness, financial problems or relationship difficulties? Anything that takes up a lot of time or energy that should be going towards resolving your grief is a liability. If you can deal with some of these issues, it may be that your grief will be less threatening.
Feeling alone and abandoned. Feeling alone in your grief is quite common. Often friends don’t know what to say. You need someone to talk to. It is important not to be alone.
Multiple losses. If you have had a number of deaths or other losses, it may be difficult to sort out what or who you are mourning. If this is the case, your grieving will be more difficult.
An inability to make sense of it all. If you are unable to explain or understand the death, it will be more difficult for you. If you can put the death into perspective and make some sense out of it, it helps.
Now let’s look at what will help you move through your grief successfully.
Someone to talk to. It is important to find someone you can talk to about how you are feeling and how you are progressing. Don’t be surprised if this person isn’t in your family. They often aren’t. Bereavement Support Groups are one of the most helpful means of findings others who understand. Talking with your doctor, clergy or funeral director may also help.
Be Patient. In a world of bank machines, drive-through restaurants and the Internet, patience is a virtue many of us lack. There are still some things that don’t happen instantly. Recovery from the death of a beloved pet is one of them. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time.
Look after yourself. Make sure you are eating properly, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly. If you do these things you will be better able to cope with your grief. Treat yourself occasionally. Listen to your favourite music. Eat a whole box of chocolates if you feel like it! Take time to do nothing if that’s what you want to do.
Practice good grief. Don’t be afraid to cry. Express your feelings and frustrations. If you are having a bad day, just ride with your feelings. If you try to avoid them, they will be there another day. Feel sad today and tomorrow you will feel better.
Embrace your grief. Grief can be a great teacher and lead you into a new understanding of life. Feel the pain. Listen to your inner voice and gradually you will move into healing and renewal.
I believe grief is a process that involves a lot of time, energy and determination.
I won’t “get over it” in a hurry, so don’t rush me.
I believe grief is intensely personal.
This is my grief.
Don’t tell me how I should be doing it.
Don’t tell me what’s right or what’s wrong.
I’m doing it my way, in my time.
I believe grief is affecting me in many ways.
I am being affected spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and mentally.
If I’m not acting like my old self, it’s because I’m not my old self and some days even I don’t understand myself.
I believe I will be affected in some way by this loss for the rest of my life.
As I get older, I will have new insights into what this death means to me.
My loved family member will continue to be part of my life and influence me until the day I die.
I believe I am being changed by this process.
I see life differently.
Some things that were once important to me aren’t any more.
Some things I used to pay little or no attention to are now important.
I think a new me is emerging, so don’t be surprised – and don’t stand in the way.
John Kennedy Saynor
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