Many, many years ago, when I adopted my first dog as an adult, the day I brought him home, I cried. I knew I would get to experience his life, but also his loss. It is the one common grief we, as pet owners will share. Their time of earth is so much shorter than ours. And it just doesn’t seem fair. Sadly, knowing we have this loss ahead of us doesn’t make it any easier. The loss of your pet is never easy. They are your soul mate, confidante, bringer of laughter and comfort. There is no ‘easy’ button to push to make our feelings of grief and loss go away, but maybe some of the thoughts below can help support you in this difficult time.
- There is NO WRONG WAY to grieve. I want to start with this, as, above all, it is so very important to remember. In my 20 years of making pet cremation urns I have spoken to hundreds of people who have lost a pet. One time the phone rang, and when I answered it there was no sound from the other end. All of a sudden I found myself crying. It turns out that there actually was a person on the other end of the line. But she was crying so she couldn’t speak. We sat in silence until she was ready. Another time I answered the phone and the first thing out of the customer’s mouth was a joke. And we laughed together. It is so, so very important to remember that grief passes through us all so very differently. Different timeline, different needs. All of it is ok, and none of it is wrong. When my Marie died, I didn’t cry, I didn’t mourn. But I didn’t judge myself for that. I didn’t force my experience. It was about 6 months later when it all came out. And that was ok. Grief does not walk a straight line.
2. Strength. In times of challenges, we always feel we need to tap into our strengths. That we ‘should’ be strong right now. But it is simply not true. We don’t always need to hold it all together. It is important to honor this time and to be ok with feeling the loss. Mourning is not a lack of strength, rather it is acknowledging our heart. When we try to be strong, we may be covering up some of the process of grief that we need to release.
3. Community. Here is where you can tap into the strength of others to help you grieve. We all take turns being supportive or supporting others. No one person has to ever be strong in all things. Now is the time to ask for support. Talk to people who have gone through this. Share your loss and you will find people to hold you up. This could be emotionally, by having them be a sympathetic ear, or physically, by letting them drive you to the vet. I do wish to note that is is absolutely OK to be selective here. People that you know are going to say something like, “buck up, it is only a dog (or cat)!” are not going to be the people that will give you what you need. You have my permission to avoid their input.
4. Accept change. Along with grieving the loss of your friend, one thing to remember that it will also be a change in the household, your routine, your shopping, even the amount of exercise you get. To counter the unexpected shock this can bring (say you are at the grocery store and automatically head towards the pet food aisle), it is a good idea to have a plan. Be ready with that shopping list and plan ahead as to what aisles you will need to go down. And if you can’t even make it to the grocery store, it is ok to order a week of pizza.
5. This is an important one: YOU DID NOTHING WRONG! Was it time? Did I make the choice too early? Could I have done anything differently? I was frustrated with her once and reacted badly. I could have done more. I should have fed her something different. And on, and on. You did the best you could with the information and circumstances you had. Life is hard. We all have so much to handle. Nothing is going to be perfect. And dogs and cats do great with “good enough.” Really. Please make sure you are not holding back on self-forgiveness.
6. Create a memorial altar. There are so many ways to have a visual reminder of your angel nearby. You can create a simple altar with their photo, a candle, and you can hang their collar on the frame. You can order a custom pet urn to put their ashes in, so they are physically close to you. There are also many jewelry options that can hold a small amount of their ashes, which would allow you to keep their memory closest to your heart.
7. Write a closure letter. We are always told to journal. And for good reason. Getting our thoughts and feelings on paper helps loosen up our mind and help start the healing process. Writing a letter is a great way to get your grief out. You can write about wonderful memories, the feelings of loss you are experiencing, or just let whatever words want to come out, come out. This is actually a really wonderful way to have children express themselves as well. Ask them to write their happiest memory with your pet, or make a drawing of how they remember them.
8. Have a memorial service. It is a way to let everyone participate and share their feelings. This can also be wonderful for kids. They can feel so helpless during this time especially if this is their first experience with death and loss. Letting them help plan, set up, or get up and say a few words can help empower them and keep a sense of control. This is a great time to scatter ashes, if that is what you choose to do, or read the letters your family has written. If you don’t have or don’t want to scatter the ashes, it is absolutely not needed. Just your presence and a moment of silence can be enough.
9. Self care. So often, in challenging times, we put ourselves last. My heart breaks for that. Now is the most important time to care for yourself. Take it easy, allow for some time off (and, again, ignore those people who say “it’s just a dog, it’s just a cat.”) Take the time you need. We all grieve differently, and at different rates. The loss of a pet can be traumatic, and it is ok to take care of your own needs at this time. It is essential to help you heal.
10. You WILL get through this. Time does soften all wounds. It is a cliche, but there is solid truth to it. To get through your toughest times in life, think of the next day. Tomorrow it will soften. Tomorrow it will lose intensity. Tomorrow you will remember something your cat or dog did and it will make you laugh instead of cry. Have faith in tomorrow.
While this time in our lives can be so very hard, the loss so very painful, I want to conclude with a thought that, really, once we think about it, is what everything else revolves around: Gratitude. How lucky were we to have our pet give us such tremendous love? How lucky were we to be the guardians of such amazing and special creatures? How lucky were we that they allowed us to love them with such depth and passion? Through all the sadness, grief, loss, my wish to you is that you can really tap into being grateful that you got to spend a length of time, long or short, in the presence of such amazing, unconditional love.
With so much love,