A Guide to Grief : The Loss of your Pet
When a Good Friend Dies
The loss of a pet means different things to different people. Even under the best of circumstances it can be a difficult and painful transition. And of course, life does not always present us with tidy partings. Sometimes the loss can be sudden and unexpected, taking a young healthy pet from the prime of it's life, other times a pet's owner must care for and help a sick or injured pet. These are difficult situations.
Whether the loss was sudden and unexpected or a long illness in an older animal, most people find a whole bevy of emotions that will accompany the transition. This is entirely normal, and although certain feeling can be intense, and seem overwhelming, the best thing to do is embrace them, truly feel them, and then let them go. In grief we often find ourselves adrift in a dark sea, but the idea of escaping or turning away from painful emotions is only a way of delaying and distorting what is a healthy and necessary part of life. Take the time to grieve. Know that the pain will not last forever, that it will change and soften over time.
When I lost my dog, Janus, I found the journey through grief came in steps or waves, and there were many things I did along the way to help me fully experience and move beyond the pain.
"Ever has it been that love knows not it's own depth until the hour of separation" -Kahlil Gibran
When my dog Janus was first diagnosed, at the age of 11, with an aggressive and very advanced cancer, she was already quite ill. She was having a very hard time breathing and her heart was enlarged and beating irregularly. The diagnosis was the most difficult moment for me. I began to weep, unable to use words or language to express the immense anger and fear that the idea of my dog's imminent death created in me. I cried continuously for the next 12 hours. As Janus was still able to walk around and was still eating, I decided to take her home and spend some time with her.
For the next week I found myself unbearably sad. I was not sleeping, and the physical presence of my dog, uncomfortable though not in serious pain, was very upsetting to me. She had lost a lot of weight, and upon returning from the vet she would not eat. I knew I would need to bring her in and have her put to sleep soon. I knew that her quality of life was poor, and that having her suffer was causing us both a lot of pain. The thought of making the appointment and bringing her to be euthanized was extremely painful. It was at this time that I reached out to friends and family. I shared my grief with them, explaining what was happening, and that I would be loosing my constant companion of the last 11 years. They didn't have to do or say anything much, it was simply the act of saying the words aloud and sharing my grief with the people I loved, feeling their support and love, that helped me truly feel the sadness. I am so grateful to all those that supported me for the immeasurable comfort they gave me. After reaching out I was able to call my vet and make her appointment.
- Think about what you would do if your pet became very ill before it happens. Would you euthanize? When would such a decision be right for you, your pet, and your family? Have a plan in place.
- Reach out to friends and family when you are sad and upset. A simple phone call, email, or even text can take the weight of sorrow a bit off your shoulders, and the outpouring of love and kind words people will give in return is always sweetly surprising and healing. People want to help! They sometimes just don't know how. Share your grief, it will dilute it's intensity and help you heal.
- When an animal is sick or in pain it is extremely overwhelming for people who love it. When you have decided what you need to do - take action right away. Delaying will only cause more pain, guilt, uncertainty, and will extend the suffering of your pet. If choosing to hospice your pet at home, do some research and talk to your vet about how to make your animals last days most comfortable.
Bringing Janus in to be euthanized was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I made the decision to go alone. I did this because Janus and I had been together, the two of us, always, and I wanted it to be that way in her death as in her life. It was for me a deeply personal experience. Your vet will offer you many options, always choose what is best for you and the people connected to your animal. You can be with your pet when it is put under, you can wait outside the room, you can drop your pet off, etc. Make a decision that is right for you and your family. Who needs to be there and why? Don't let other people tell you what is right. If you feel you need to be with your pet, then do it. If you feel the scene will be too overwhelming, and that you will only upset your pet with crying and intense emotion, then make a different plan.
I chose to take my dog's body and bury her. There are a whole slew of options today for how you want to lay your pet to rest. Cremation is often available and if you have a large pet, or do not have space to bury an animal, it is a good option. Whatever you decide it can be helpful to create a moment, for you and your family, for closure. I brought my dog out to a our family homestead, where previous family pets had been buried, and where my Father's ashes had been sprinkled. This was a sacred and important place, and I felt really good about putting Janus on this piece of land. I buried her immediately, digging the hole in the rocky Maine soil. The work of digging the hole felt good after my muddled and sleepless days and nights. I was tired, weary, and sad, but I can say that after Janus's suffering ended, a large part of my pain and sorrow ended too.
- Have a plan in place for bringing your pet in to be euthanized & for how you will deal with the remains.
- Honor your pet in it's final resting place.
"When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you will see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight." -Kahlil Gibran
I was exhausted and took some time to care for myself. I got extra sleep, spent time with those closest to me, and made sure to eat and exercise. I cleaned my apartment and removed all but a few of Janus's things. I gave much of her stuff to a local shelter and to friends, including a cache of dog food. I ordered a large photo of Janus, in her prime, and had it framed. I hung this in a prominent spot, and hung her leash next to it. I also wrote a tribute to Janus which I published online and shared with friends. All of these things helped me feel better about my loss. However you choose to do it, remembering your pet and acknowledging the loss are important. Photos, poetry, essays, gravestones and markers, talking with friends and family - whatever it may be it is important to pay tribute to your friend and all the joy you shared together.
- If your pet had a lot of toys, bedding and food consider donating them or giving them to a friend who could use them. You no longer have that pet, and keeping their accoutrement around can be painful. Keep one or two special items, get rid of the rest.
- Honor your pet in photos, art, written word, or speech. Acknowledge the loss.
-Be prepared for the strangeness of no longer having the pet in your life. Things like being alone in your house, taking a walk without your dog, and no longer having to rush home to feed your pet can be confusing and can reaffirm sadness and loss. This is OK, and in time the strangeness will wear off.
It will take time, of course. I often think of Janus, and sometimes I miss her, simply miss her. But it has gotten better, easier, and I am so grateful that Janus was in my life. It is likely that you will outlive your pet, but this shouldn't prevent you from cherishing and loving every moment you have with them, and remembering them joyously after they are no longer there. Love is larger then death. We grieve for our pets because we love them, but love does not end. Be grateful for the time you had. Find peace in the meetings and partings of life.
"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?" -Kahlil Gibran