A few days ago, I received a text from a former family member informing me that "Echo Babyfur", at age 14, was "not doing well”- not drinking or eating and is lethargic. He was taken to the vet for bloodwork and x rays were refused. I received the text just before starting work, so all I could do at the time was shed a few tears, wipe them away and then start my shift. Since then, I haven't received any updates on the situation.
So why does the loss of a pet/animal companion, or the knowledge of the impending loss of a pet, hurt so much? Losing a pet is a loss, just as losing a person is a loss. Whether that loss is sudden, or due to a gradual decline in health, or any other reason, there is a loss in the intense love and bond that we shared with our animal companions. Our animal companions are not “just a dog” or “just a cat” (like Echo Babyfur), or “just a (insert any other animal here)”. They are a much-loved member of our family, and their loss can be as emotionally crippling as a loss of a human family member.
Animal companions bring much to our lives with their presence. They bring companionship and joy to our lives as we revel in their antics. We celebrate their birthdays and perhaps buy them Christmas gifts or dress them up for holiday photos, or perhaps they even have a small wardrobe. They bring structure to our day- a scheduled time for feeding and for walks and for focused play. Pets keep us active as we take them on daily walks, perhaps even adding a social element through obedience classes/agility training or acting as a St John Ambulance Therapy Dog or just meeting up with our dog park friends. Some animal companions help us to overcome challenges and setbacks in our lives by acting as a service animal or emotional support animal. Regardless of the formal or informal role, our pets provide us with a sense of meaning and purpose.
So, when a cherished pet dies (or its death is expected) it is very normal to experience grief and loss. Like any loss, grieving is a highly individual process. Even years after a loss a strong sense of grief can be triggered by sights, sounds or a special anniversary. As in mourning for a human loss, the loss of a pet will evoke different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution.
This grieving process will happen gradually, and it is important that the process naturally unfolds over weeks, months and even years. You are mourning the loss of a much-loved animal so many emotions (sad, shock, lonely) will naturally occur. Trying to “bottle up” these feelings is counterproductive. It is best to face your grief and actively deal with it. It is never easy to lose a family member.
Some suggestions on how to actively deal with your grief:
-Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
-Create a small tribute/shrine to your pet by framing and displaying their picture and perhaps adding some of their favourite toys/collar/leash to the display.
-Create a scrapbook (print or online) of favourite photos and memories.
-Publish a pet obituary and photo in the local paper.
-Purchase a lovely pet urn to house the ashes if you chose to have the pet cremated.
-Consider planting a shrub or a tree or a rose bush on the site of the buried animal so that you can easily revisit your animal companion at any time.
-If help is needed there are often groups that your local shelter or vet might know about. There may be online groups too.
If you feel you are struggling more than normal, don’t be afraid to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional to guide you through the grieving process. Death doulas (like me) can provide suggestions/work directly with children and adults who are coping with the loss of their beloved furry/feathery/finny/scaly friend.
(Excerpts taken from my July 30, 2022, Eventbrite Presentation)