By Coleen Ellis, Pet Loss Pioneer and Founder, Two Hearts Pet Loss Center
Pet ownership has taken a drastic change over the past fifteen years.
Pets have gone from the barnyard to the back yard, from the back yard to the back porch, from the back porch to the living room.
And, for so many pet lovers, they are now in our bedrooms and an integral part of our family unit.
Pets represent all that is good.
They organically possess the traits that so many people wish they had... the ability for unconditional love, the capability to fully forgive, the power to live in the moment and just “be,” and the daily beauty of loving life and their surroundings, as little or as big as those surroundings are.
They need nothing, except their human, for happiness. Yes, so many admirable traits for any human being.
An American Shift on a Pet's Life (And Our Own)
Baby Boomers began empty-nesting roughly 15 years ago. Known as being “helicopter parents” this generation still felt compelled to “hover” over something after their human children left the nest, so the pets became the new children.
As they empty-nested, their children, the Millennials, decided to take a different path. A path more socially acceptable within their generation with living together with their significant other.
And, while they were not quite ready for human children, they did want to take parenting for a test ride, so they got pets.
With this surge of pet ownership (roughly 70% of our population today has a pet in their home), we have also seen a surge in how these pets are treated.
High-end doggie bakeries, Cat Café’s, boarding facilities that are more representative of high-end condominium complexes fit for any human!
Grooming salons with menus that could easily be confused with any other salon, hotels who now have pets on staff as they know a client getting a pet “fix” will be a happy client, and so much more!
These creatures have one role and it’s to make their humans – their loved one - happy. Therefore, when this unconditional love is no longer a part of the everyday, there is a huge void.
Pets mark the chapters of our life.
Possibly it was the pet who was the support during an illness, a pet who provided the listening ear during a divorce, or the pet was the only source of love for a home-bound person.
There’s no language that’s spoken, except there’s a communication that’s fully understood between pet and pet parent.
Reasons The Loss of a Pet Can Be So Painful
While 70% of our population owns a pet, the math would add up to say that 30% of the United States population does not have a pet in their home.
That within itself sets the stage to create a bit of a disenfranchised grief for pet lovers and family members when their beloved pet dies.
Whether it’s those that don’t understand the relationship people have with a pet and the human-animal bond, or it’s the age-old statement of “it’s just a dog/cat,” some people will dismiss or minimized the emotions.
However, it’s big, and it’s real.
Our society is making great strides in giving pet lovers permission to grieve, pay tribute and show their emotions for the loss of these loved ones.
People are finding strength in saying it’s more than just a dog, cat, reptile, bird, THIS was a love, and I’ve had a loss.
When asked to describe what they think about with their pet, the words “unconditional love” is invariably a part of the discussion.
They don’t judge, they just love.
It’s always so heartwarming to hear the stories of older first-time pet owners. Sentiments like “I didn’t know I could love something like this so much” just makes me smile.
Adding to the disenfranchised aspect of grief is often the need to “rank” the loss of a pet with other life events. “Aunt Betsy is sick, and that should be bigger and more important than Fido’s death,” or “my friend’s Mom just died and human death is bigger than Fluffy’s loss.”
Love is love; loss is loss.
I, personally, want to give ALL pet lovers the permission to grieve this loss and don’t rank it. Love and grief will always be equal. Period.
Stop analyzing it!
So, with that, here’s what I tell pet lovers whose world has been rocked by the death of a precious love:
Be kind to yourself.
Honor your journey and the life you shared with this beautiful pet.
Wherever you are right now is exactly where you should be.
Another Way to Explore The 5 Stages of Grief And More
Let’s start with some definitions to understand a bit more about loss. Beautifully stated by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the definition of “grief” is the simple shorthand we use for what is actually a highly complex mixture of thoughts and feelings.
Grief is everything we think and feel inside after someone we love dies or leaves or something we are attached to goes away. In other words, grief is the instinctive human response to loss.
Mourning on the other hand is to express your grief outside of yourself. Mourning is the active version of grieving. And, as Dr. Wolfelt again so eloquently states “he who mourns, mends.”
For some, grief can best be explained by looking at it in stages, with the 5 stages of grief being:
For some folks, understanding grief in this linear type of fashion is a great way to frame up the emotional response and the journey.
It gives words to a process (the grieving process), when the process is confusing within itself. It allows someone to define where they are, and possibly what will come next.
I like to look at mourning in a bit more circular fashion.
The journey of grief might not take on a prescribed pattern or look like stages, but may be better defined as these Six Central Needs of Mourning.
During the period when someone is actively mourning their loss – which is a very difficult time – it may help to consider the following:
1. Acknowledge the reality of the death.
Acknowledging the full reality of the loss of your pet may take weeks or months but will be done in a time that is right for you.
Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there.
2. Move toward the pain of the loss.
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is a difficult, but important, need.
A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore it.
3. Continue your relationship through memories.
Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps.
For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together.
4. Adjust your self-identity.
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet.
You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning.
5. Search for meaning.
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of pets in your life. Coming to terms with these questions is another need you must meet during your grief journey.
Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important.
6. Receive support from others.
You need the love and support of others because you never "get over" grief.
Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.
Things to Remember: The Intricacies of Pet Loss
I’ve been asked the question countless times “Is the grief experienced in losing a beloved pet the same as human loss?”
I used to answer that question as “yes.”
The feelings are every bit as real, the intense grief, the need to mourn.
However, as I really look at it, even losing humans is different from person to person, relationship to relationship.
Therefore, the loss of a pet is one more loss. It is its own loss, as even our relationships with our pets is different pet to pet.
However, with pet loss, there are some unique elements, some intricacies.
1. The deafening silence.
The silence in a home after the death of a pet may seem excruciatingly loud. While animal companions occupy physical space in our life and our home, many times their presence is felt more with our senses.
When that pet is no longer there, the lack of their presence, the silence, becomes piercing. It’s the reality of the “presence of the absence.” Merely being aware of this stark reality will assist in preparing one for the flood of emotions.
2. The special bond we share with our pet.
The relationship shared with a pet is a special and unique bond, a tie that some might find difficult to understand.
There will be well-meaning friends and family members who will think that one should not mourn for a pet or who will tell a pet lover that one should not grieve for the loss of a pet as “it’s just a cat” or “just a dog.”
This grief is real, and the relationship shared with these special friend needs to be mourned.
*I continue to use the word mourn here, as the grief is certainly felt. I encourage people to do their mourning work for their loss, share their grief and emotions. However, so many people have felt shamed when they express their emotions, so they bottle them up inside. Remember, honor that journey, be kind to yourself, and wherever you are is exactly where you should be.
3. Grief can’t be ranked.
Sometimes our heads get in the way of our heart’s desire to mourn by trying to justify the depth of our emotion.
Some people will then want to “rank” their grief, pitting their grief emotions with others who they feel may be “worse,” or more worthy of emotions than the death of an animal.
While this feels like it might be normal and something that a “caring person” would consider is others around them, your grief is your grief and it deserves the care and attention of anyone who is experiencing a loss.
4. Questions of spirituality.
During this time in a grief journey, many find themselves questioning their own beliefs regarding pets and the afterlife. Friends, family members, acquaintances, and clergy will also have their own opinions.
Find the answers right for each individual, for not only the personal beliefs but the permission to believe in the mystery of your own thoughts, to include the beautiful story representation of Rainbow Bridge and the message of hope.
How To Help Children Deal With a Pet Death
Kimberly Glackin, a psychologist in a psychology professor at MCC-Blue River said children are very capable of dealing with death and want to know more about it. What stops them, however, is that adults and family members offer vague answers or avoid the subject altogether.
“Children want to talk about it. They want to ask questions about it, and they want adults to answer their questions honestly,” she said.
“In the absence of any real answers, children will respond with self-blame and will use their very creative imaginations to conjure up some very frightening explanations for the confusion they are having.
Children should be encouraged to ask questions about death. Let them feel free to ask any questions they have without fear that they will be criticized, judged or punished.”
1. Tell them the truth.
Do not lie to the kids. When a pet dies, have an open discussion, death, and sadness. Don’t tell them he went to the farm, or some other pacifying answer. If it was an accident, tell them, just like if she was old and sick.
Talk about death, and what it means.
Explain that death is a part of life, and this will happen to everyone.
Let them talk about the lessons they learned from the pet, and what they will miss.
Help them create a scrapbook or other projects that will give them the opportunity to talk about the pet. Talk about death and let the children know it’s okay to talk about it. After all, these experiences will shape how they will see this process for their lifetime.
2. Let Them Say Goodbye.
Children should always have the opportunity to say good-bye to their pet best friend.
Understand the maturity of a child to be able to handle the act of euthanasia, and if they should be present for that. However, after euthanasia, give children the opportunity to say a final good-bye to their animal friend.
3. Let them be a part of the final rituals.
Let children create a final memorial ceremony. Let it be their songs, readings, and format.
Consider doing a clay paw print of the pet for the child to keep and doing a clay print of the child’s handprint for the pet to have with them on their next journey of burial or cremation.
Respect the child's feelings for the pet, and what they will want to do to honor that pet. Don’t just throw the pet in the trash, thereby giving the impression that bodies and loss is disposable.
Helping Seniors Deal With a Pet Death
For so many seniors, pets are the reason they get out of bed in the morning. Something is depending upon them for food and exercise. Therefore, when a pet dies for this generation, possibly so will their desire to get up in the morning.
Being super aware of where a senior is at when this happens will be key.
Make sure that a senior’s entire support system is aware of the loss so they, too, can keep a more active eye on any decline due to the pet’s death.
Some areas are starting “Senior Programs” in their shelters.
This is an agreement with the shelter and a senior person stating if the person dies and the pet is still living, the pet will be re-homed with no fear of that pet going homeless or being euthanized.
Such peace of mind for seniors as so many times their hesitation to adopt again is the fear that they will die before the pet does.
Pet Loss Support Groups, Active Mourning and Permanent Memorialization Ideas
A beautiful way to participate in the active mourning for a beloved pet is to find ways to memorialize them and to honor the life and journey that was shared.
This process will vary from person to person and should be representative of the life shared together.
Consider these ideas:
Find a friend or family member who understands the love shared with an animal. Schedule coffee time with them to share stories and find support.
Plan a ritual. What did they like to do and do that!
Provide an opportunity for the pet to live on in the home with a Tribute Table, a table that is representative of all that was loved from toys, treats, photos, flowers and anything else pertinent.
Journal and write a letter to the pet, or about the pet, remembering all that was special about them. Use the letter writing process to say the final I love you’s, I’m sorry’s, or memories.
Donate to a shelter or rescue group in honor of your pet.
Create a special spot in the garden, complete with a rock or marker with the pet’s paw print or nose print engraved on it. Give them a permanent spot to forever remember their time in nature.
Make a scrapbook for your pet, from beginning to end. Everything that was special.
Create a special photo montage video, complete with special music that truly summed up the life that was shared.
The life we share with our pets is special and unique. Their only role while they are with us is to love us. Therefore, when that love is gone, our heart will be shattered.
Give yourself permission to honor that love. Be kind to yourself.
And, know your life was changed because of that pet, and your heart will never be the same because of your pet's death.
Smile because it was real…the unconditional love as well as the heartbreak. It is all part of the grieving process, which helps your own mental health and to honor the pet's memory.
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