Losing a Pet – How to Deal with Grief and Loss
The topic of losing a pet unfortunately came up this week after my uncle, Dale, unexpectedly lost his dog, Cabo. We all love our pets, but if I had to list the top person I know that really loves their dog, of all of the people I could think of, I’d probably say “Uncle Dale”. His kids (my cousins) are grown and have moved out of the house, so around that time Dale got dogs, Captain and Cabo.
They are his loyal companions. They do everything together and are well known for long hikes and wilderness escapades. Whenever we get together with Uncle Dale, we listen to tales of their adventures. They are usually either a bit freaky or hilarious. “Freaky” because of experiences with wild animals as well as plenty of spooky places they’ve come across; “hilarious” because, well, hilarious things just happen to Dale. They once found a diary while hiking through the fields around the Bluestem Center for the Arts, and Dale posted the diary on Craigslist; if someone could describe it, he’d give it back to them. Well, a man called Dale about the diary and when Dale asked him to describe it, the man was confused. The man thought it was a fake ad that was code for a different type of escapade.
Trust me, we about died laughing over that one.
I’m glad we just laughed there, because grief sucks. It’s basically something we just try to survive. And that’s really what it is initially, survival.
I worked at a Hospice company in Minneapolis years ago, and I spent a lot of time doing visits or presentations with the chaplain. She had some really great stories of things she had seen and experienced as a hospice chaplain for so many years. She believed the veil between this life and the next was very thin and had plenty of stories to back this up. One thing she told me about grief that stuck with me was “the pain doesn’t go away because the love doesn’t go away”. Isn’t that the truth? The initial wound does eventually sting less with time. But, time is tough. And the wound is still there.
What can we do to help ourselves grieve the loss? Here are a few tips:
1. Be patient and kind with yourself. Give yourself some grace. The loss is real and painful. Sometimes you feel like you should be over it, or that your waves of grief shouldn’t be so intense. You may hear from outside sources, or even try to tell yourself, “It’s a dog; I should be handling this better.”. But the relationship of love we have with our pets is real, genuine, unconditional and irreplaceable. Allow yourself to feel your feelings and don’t apologize for this.
2. Talk to someone. Allow yourself to be real with how you’re feeling with at least one person. Grief takes a toll on us, and it helps to have someone to lean on. As we go through the grief process, we may have a lot of feelings beyond sadness. We may feel anger or even guilt. Maybe the circumstances surrounding the death of your pet were complicated or unsettling and you feel guilty that you should have handled things differently. Maybe the loss of your pet is bringing up feelings of grief from when your Dad passed away, and it’s opening up an old wound. Whatever your feelings may be, they come in waves of intensity. Allow yourself moments to be vulnerable with a person you trust.
3. Do things according to your timeline. Well-intentioned people may think they’re saying or doing things to help, but everyone handles and processes grief differently. You may want to get rid of the dog bed right away, or you may want to keep your pet’s items around for a while and then remove them gradually over time. It’s okay to let people know you’re not ready to do something quite yet. You may want to do something in memorial of your pet, or you may not. That’s okay. It’s a sorrowful time, and none of us know how we’re supposed to move through our pain. There are times you won’t know the answers. Just breathe and take it day by day.
We know our pets would never want to see us sad or hurting. They are gifts that love us hard and no matter what age they leave us, they cross the rainbow bridge too soon. But, they leave their precious footprints on our hearts. It's a reminder to enjoy our loved ones – pets and humans – while we have them. We never know how long they'll be here with us.
In loving memory of Cabo.
And in loving memory of other beloved pets: Snickers, Rowdy and Scribbles.