For many of us, animals are family members and often the most consistent, loving, present beings in our lives. They are there waiting when we wake up and get home, when we're going through a break-up, our kids move out, or we have a conflict at work. They have no choice but to rely on us, creating a bond that if we're lucky, makes it possible for them to feel safe with us. Equally, we trust them, often more than humans because they haven't hurt our feelings with words, rejected us, harmed us (except for the odd scratch or two!), or judged us.
This means that when they get sick and die or disappear from our lives in some other form, we not only lose them, but can also lose a sense of the profound safety and unconditional love they provided.
- Our home feels empty
- We are heart broken
- If we quickly get a new pet, we may feel judged for moving on too quickly
- Worse still, if we're surrounded by people who don't ‘get' the special bond we shared with our pet, we feel alone, misunderstood and sometimes even self-conscious for grieving.
As with any significant loss or grief, there is no ‘right' way to grieve and no timeline to stick to. Depending on our personal history, relationship with our pet and other life circumstances, it can take weeks, months or years to move through grief.
We might cry a lot and without warning; find it hard to socialise or feel motivated; be irritated by humans; get angry; feel like what happened was unfair; become numb for a while; distract ourselves by becoming busier and more social than ever; talk to our pet; wish we'd done more or noticed signs of illness in them; question whether we could have saved them; start or increase coping mechanisms (positive or negative); wonder if they knew how much we loved them and whether we will meet again. Any, none, or all of the above might feel familiar.
Over time, the intensity of our grief reduces and any anger, longing and despair generally settles into a more gentle sadness, and deep gratitude.
The good part is that unlike losing a human, there is less chance that we will experience complicated grief when we lose a pet, because for the most part, our relationships with our pets aren't complicated.
The hard part is, when our hearts break, they do take time to heal and it's important to trust the process; do what feels right rather that what seems normal; and try to be (even a smidge as) loving to ourselves as our pet was to us.
If you're feeling overwhelmed and consumed, and sitting alone with your thoughts is too much, you might like to try:
- Journaling your thoughts and feelings to express everything, get it ‘out' and get clarity about what is happening inside you
- Use water colours or oil pastels to draw/ paint and engage your right brain in the healing process
- Write a poem about your pet and/or how their life and death or loss impacted you
- Spend time with a trusted friend or family member who knew your pet, understands what you've lost and can be with you in your grief without trying to problem solve or diminish or experience
- Get a photo printed of you and your pet and frame it, placing their favourite toy next to it
- Create a collage of photos of your pet and special moments you shared
- Develop meaningful rituals, particularly soon after the loss, that support you in your grief journey. Light a candle, kiss a photo of your pet before you go to sleep. Write them a letter
- Seek out spaces where people might similarly be expressing their feelings of loss. Let people know you're struggling
- Tell your work colleagues and friends what has happened, how it has impacted you, and what you need (if you know) so they can support you in a way that is right for you
- Build in space and time in your schedule to ‘fall apart' safely and in your own way
- Be mindful of over-relying on less helpful coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol and gambling, and seek help if you need to
- Be especially kind to yourself if you get distracted easily, ‘tune-out' a lot and aren't as ‘productive' as usual; this is your body and mind's way of telling you that what's happened feels like too much – it's helping you survive and cope even if it feels like the opposite. Rather than being self-critical, try to acknowledge the part of yourself that is doing everything it can to keep you safe
- Spend some time outdoors and exercise regularly if you're able to
- Try and maintain regular sleeping and eating patterns, hydrate, and get some healthy food in there (alongside the comfort food)
- See a counsellor or other health professional who can be with you, hold your pain, understand your suffering, listen closely and provide you with the empathy and unconditional positive regard that can help you take the next small step
Pets are often are greatest teachers because they provide:
- Enduring companionship, loyalty and forgiveness
- The reminder that we are worthy of love and affection, and that we matter
- The opportunity to give ourselves wholeheartedly to another living being, and to provide ongoing care and safety
- Proof that we can trust again if we've been hurt by human beings
- Evidence that we can stay in a long-term relationships
Trust that you have embodied all the core qualities that you most loved and valued in your pet. And cherish the fact that they stretched your heart and capacity to feel by loving you just the way you are.