Angel Pets Expo Blog Article
A Deeper Look into Pet Loss
submitted by Kathy Link, LCSW, LCAS
Social Worker Four Seasons, a Hospice Center and Pet Loss Resource
We don’t have to look very far to see the deep connections that we have with our pets here in Western North Carolina. There are dog-friendly restaurants, cat spas, and even pets wearing fancy clothes everywhere we look. There are door-to-door services offering home-based grooming care, mobile veterinary care, and organic, free-range, gourmet pet food. As a community hospice social worker and grief counselor, I’ve even pet and held a baby goat wrapped in a sweater at a nursing home that somebody brought in for a visit.
Consider these statistics:
- Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association gathered in 2012 indicates that there are approximately 70 million pet dogs in the United States, and 74.1 million pet cats, and that six-out-of-ten pet owners consider their pets to be family members.
- The American Pet Products Association estimates that as of 2017, 60.2 million American households homed dogs, 47.1 million households homed cats, 12.5 million households homed freshwater fish, 7.9 million households homed birds, 6.7 million households homed small animals such as gerbils, hamsters, and rabbits, 4.7 million households homed reptiles, 2.6 million households homed horses, and 2.5 million households homed saltwater fish.
- One recent poll created by The Harris Poll estimates that three out of five American households have pets, and 95% of those households consider their pets to be a member of their family.
We love our pets, and our pets love us. Given the natural order of things, we have a good chance of outliving our pets, and lifetime pet stewards will experience multiple losses from losing pets. Unless we’re talking about parrots and turtles. (Parrots and turtles live a really long time). Generally speaking, however, our collective love for our pets gives us a tremendous opportunity to dip our toes into a concept that many of us would rather avoid. We all have an expiration date. We’re all going to die, and it is probable that we will be devastated by the grief of losing a loved one more than once as we go through life. For many of us, the list of loved ones includes our four-legged, winged, finned, or cold-blooded companions
According to the American Psychological Association, grief due to a loss of a loved one may be the most difficult challenge a person can face.  There are all sorts of other losses in life to deal with as well, including houses, friendships, other relationships, lifestyles, jobs, general worldview, etc. When we’re simply talking about the loss of a loved one, as a culture, we don’t do bereavement, grief, and death and dying particularly well. We don’t even want to talk about it. What happens, when we lose our beloved pet? Do you call in to work because “my pet snake died”. Likely not, but for many people, the loss of a pet may trigger a myriad of intense emotions and reactions. So what to do about it?
- Give yourself permission to grieve. The sadness and loss that you are feeling is real and normal. The fact that you are grieving a living being who is not a human being does not discount your feelings in any way. The pet who has given you his or her entire life is gone, and that is a huge adjustment. Give yourself permission to express your feelings in a safe way. Give your feelings permission to be whatever they are – whether it’s relief that you are feeling, because your pet is no longer suffering, or guilt you are feeling, because you had to make the difficult choice to euthanize your pet, or anger you are feeling, because the loss was unexpected and was caused by an event that you may not have been expecting. Whatever it is that you are feeling, it’s okay. Some common emotions and reactions associated with pet loss are shock, guilt, anger, disbelief, sadness, confusion, and sometimes even joy for the time you’ve shared together. Or all of the above at any given moment. Whatever you are feeling, it’s okay, and it’s yours. It’s normal. It’s not wrong. You are not over-reacting. You are not being silly.
- Take the time you need. It’s possible that you may need some time alone to process your emotions, or you may need more time with other people to process your emotions. You may decide to get a pet right away as a way to heal yourself and your pain, or you may decide to wait two years to get another pet, or you may decide never to get another pet again. Whatever you decide, take the time you need. You can always adjust your timeline as you go along. In the early days of your grief, you may find that your emotions are overwhelming. Consider blocking a period of time each day to simply sit in your emotions – whether that block of time is three minutes, or 15 minutes, or half an hour. You will know what’s right for you. And you will know when to make adjustments.
- Stay out of the blame game. Following the initial processing of your feelings, you may be very well tempted to beat yourself up – or beat up other people – for things that could have happened, or might have happened, or didn’t happened.
- “If I would have euthanized him earlier, he wouldn’t have suffered like that…”
- “I euthanized her too soon…”
- “If the veterinarian had given me this needed piece of information, she would still be with us…”
- “If I only had not left the door open…”
- “We should have read the signs…”
The truth is, no amount of blaming is going to bring your beloved pet back. If you find yourself stepping into blame, consider what it may take for you to move to a place of acceptance and release.
- Readjust. It may be helpful to readjust your daily schedule or your daily routine for a period of time. If you went for a run with your dog every morning, you may want to get a stationary bicycle or a gym membership and work out at the gym instead for a time. If you found yourself returning home at exactly 5 pm each evening because your cat demanded dinner at exactly that time, perhaps consider taking a slower, alternative route home, or grocery shopping after work instead. If you had the bird cage in a specific place in the living room for many years, consider rearranging the furniture a bit. If you need to avoid the route of your daily dog walk for a time, then by all means, do it.
- Practice self-care. The Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services: Institute for Creativity & Development has a very helpful article on their webpage entitled “Comfort Quickies: Self Care While Grieving”. Ideas range from eating a favorite meal, to taking a warm bath, to playing mood music, to spending time in nature. Make your own list. What is nurturing to you? What is healthy to your mind, body, and spirit, and will make you feel better? If feeling better is not an option, what will help you process your emotions? What will serve you? What can you incorporate into your daily life that will unlock the floodgates of your grief, help you process your emotions, and eventually work through your grief? Your options are wide and open. Make a list.
- Surround yourself with people who understand. Share your grief with friends and family who will understand. Allow your loved ones to help you carry the burden in a way that will be helpful to you. If there is a pet loss grief support group in your area, attend one of the sessions, and see if it’s helpful. If you and your best friend always connected by sharing pictures of your pet iguanas, ask your friend if you could do something else for a time. Perhaps a weekly movie is in order, or a trip to the local zoo. Or perhaps it is important for you to share your pictures with your friend in a way that will memorialize your pet and provide an avenue for you to express your grief and loss. Let people be there for you the way you would want to be there for them if they were going through this. If you have people in your life who don’t and won’t understand what you’re going through, just stick with the people who will understand as much as you can, for as long as you can.
- Incorporate ritual. What types of rituals do you participate in when a human loved one dies? Would it make sense to you to modify it in some way to help you through your grief? Could you light a candle next to your pet’s photo every evening? Do you have the type of social network to be able to hold a funeral of sorts? Could you and your children create a ceremony that would be meaningful and age-appropriate? Would leaving the empty food dish out for a while, symbolizing your loss be helpful to you? Your options end only with your imagination, and with what you find to be meaningful.
The most important things to remember are that you are not alone, you are not crazy, and there is no right or wrong way to navigate the loss of a pet. If you find yourself moving into self-destructive behaviors, then it’s time to reach out and seek professional advice. But only you will know if you are doing that, and you will know if you need help. The grief that flows from the love that was shared with an animal is natural and healthy. Honor it. It matters.
“Four Seasons hosts a monthly ‘Pet Loss Grief Support Group’ in Asheville and invite you to join us if you are living with the loss of a loved pet.”
Four Seasons ‘Compassion For Life’ Monthly Pet Loss Grief Support Group
Losing a pet friend and companion can be heartbreaking. Whether it is a sudden or planned goodbye, it is an emotional time. We understand the strength and specialness of the animal-human bond. On the first Tuesday of each month, Four Seasons Compassion for Life will be hosting a Pet Loss Grief Support Group from 5:30-6:30 pm. The monthly meeting will be held at a new location: 373 Biltmore Ave, near Mission Hospital. This group is for anyone who is grieving the loss of an animal companion and needs further support. This is a free monthly meeting. Everyone welcome but out of respect to other participants, please leave pets at home.
Toll Free: 866-466-9734