Counseling my clients in pet loss and bereavement has slowly become a large part of my practice. It is something I truly enjoy as its importance is huge. For many of us, pets have become our family members, and their loss or impending loss can be devastating. We have all experienced loss; whether family, friends, other animals… And these losses can be wrapped up in every loss we experience going forward.
Societal recognition of pet bereavement is growing. Many clients report they have supportive friends and family members to talk to, and often spouses support each other in these decisions. However, this isn’t true for everyone. And it may have not been true for currently supported people in their past decisions. It may also be true that some of us feel support at home, but that we don’t feel comfortable calling into work to stay home and bereave a pet. So while things are getting better on this front, there is still work to be done to spread the word.
Losing a pet brings up many emotions. There is certainly great sadness and loneliness. There is guilt (did I make the right decisions? did I do the right thing in deciding to euthanize my pet? was it too soon or too late?). There is anger (why my pet? why now? why when I feed him the right things and did all the proper care?). There is sometimes shame (why can’t I get over this faster? why didn’t I save more money just in case?). All these emotions make sense and are normal. All these emotions are also incredibly difficult to sit with and just feel.
The impending loss of a pet brings with it a lot of anticipatory grief. I am often privy to this as many of my patients have chronic diseases or are geriatric. Many people worry about knowing when to make the decision to euthanize a pet. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians counsel clients that they will know when it is time, and they will. There will be a certain signal on a certain day and the person will know, “it is time”. However, this is incredibly hard to believe when you have not been through it before with a pet. Often people who have had previous pets and were left with regrets on how things were handled, by them or their medical teams, have great anxiety and self-doubt on whether they will make the right decision or make the same decisions that they now doubt. There will also be questions and likely some elements of second guessing; in the end, I believe, most of us are doing the best, making the best decisions with what information and experience we have at that point in time.
Other pets often grieve, too. It can be a source of comfort for their people and a source of further sadness. In my own pet family, I have had incidences where all the remaining pets acted exactly the same. It made me wonder, did they see this coming? I have also had times where it wasn’t just me experiencing deep sadness, there was another furry friend beside me who didn’t want to do her normal activities either and she just couldn’t eat with such gusto.
So what to do with ourselves and our sadness when we lose our beloved, unconditional friends? Some people chose a ceremony to honor a pet with those that love them. Some people make picture collages, write poems, create memorials. Some people join a support group or partake in individual counseling. Donations to animal or other non profit organizations can help. Sometimes it is a new animal friend that helps to kick off the healing process. I know many of us leave out an honorary toy or dish for our deceased pets. When I had to say goodbye to one of my most beloved and soulful pets, I insisted on leaving his collar on a doorknob so I could hear the sound of his tags and think of him now and then. In my opinion, we do what we do to heal, and anything that helps your heart feel a little less heavy is the right thing.
I have also learned that each pet is different. It is normal to experience different kinds of grief with different pets. They all fill a different place in our heart. It can take different lengths of time to recover and it can require different ways of honoring that pet.
We are all living, breathing, loving creatures and we touch each others in a myriad of ways. Though death is a part of life, it sure is hard. However, if we soften and allow ourselves to feel these painful feelings at the time , it will help us heal in a more healthy way in the end. And if we are healthy in our grief, we can support each other in our times of need.