My dear friend Angie Arora and I did our social work internships together, back in college. We took vegetarian lunches together. More often than not, our conversations seemed to circle around to animals – their goodness, their welfare – and the special place they held in our lives.
A life-change occurred for Angie, when she lost her dear friend Montey, a tiny poodle her family cared so deeply for. Since then, her career has very intentionally included a focus on animals. A specialist in veterinary social work, including pet loss and bereavement, Angie kindly shares her thoughts with us about coping with the loss of an animal companion.
The loss of a pet is something that touches most of our lives, or the lives of ones we love. We often hear the saying, “Time heals all wounds”. However when it comes to mourning the loss of loved ones, this may not in fact be true. It is what we do with our time that can lead to healing.
Grief is a process and with it comes many emotions to experience. We may feel sadness, anger, guilt, disbelief, confusion, and loneliness, in no particular order. In fact, we may experience these emotions in different waves of intensity and go back and forth between them.
In my experience of supporting others through their loss, I have come to see guilt as a very common, and normal, emotional response to the loss of a companion. This is present when one has made a decision to euthanize their animal or if the animal has passed in other ways.
This makes sense. We nurture and care for our animal’s needs and have assumed the role and functions of a parent. When they pass, we are often left wondering about our effectiveness of a caregiver and if we did everything in our power to save them.
You have the right to feel your emotions, despite the fact that some people may say, “It was just a pet”. Your animal was not just your pet. They were your companion, your confidant, your friend and an integral part of your family.
When my beloved companion of nearly 18 years, Montey, passed away in 2004, I was left with a slew of emotions that I couldn’t even begin to address or make sense of. In the midst of my deep pain, I desperately searched for people to talk to who had experienced this type of loss and could relate to my experiences. Instead, I was met with silence from many well-intentioned people who didn’t know what to say or do. Others simply minimized my pain and told me to ‘keep my mind busy’ or ‘things will get better in time, try not to think about it so much’. This intensified my pain and further complicated by healing journey because I didn’t feel validated or supported to work through what I was thinking and feeling.
Your emotions matter and your grief matters.
The following are meant to provide some ways to work through your healing journey:
• Reflect on the bond you and your dog shared. Think about what your pet meant to you and what you learned from your relationship together. This will help you realize that you have the right to grieve and that your dog will always hold a special part of your heart.
• Give yourself permission to grieve. This may sound straight forward, but we often find ways to mask our pain. Find a way to express your emotions that works best for you. This may include talking, writing, drawing or perhaps creating something in memory of your companion. Expressing your grief is an important way to make sense of it.
• Find comfort in people who are compassionate to what you going through. This may be supportive family members, friends, coworkers or people at a local support group. Pet loss is a stigmatized form of loss – it’s not readily understood or empathized with. Because of this, we are often faced with insensitive and hurtful comments – countering this with supportive people becomes especially important.
• Know that you are not alone. While everyone’s experiences are different and unique, we share a commonality in knowing what it is like to lose a companion we cherish so deeply.
If you know someone who is anticipating or experiencing the loss of their companion, find ways to become a supportive confidant.
Remember, you don’t have to take their pain away. Rather, show them you care by:
• Actively listening if they decide to share their experiences with you. Validate the person’s experiences instead of minimizing them. Whether you’ve experienced a similar loss or not is irrelevant, it’s about the other person’s emotions and not your perception of them.
• Avoiding discussing them getting a new animal companion, unless they bring it up. They will likely feel you are suggesting they replace their pet that just passed. Everyone processes their grief differently, and while some may decide to bring a new animal into their home at some point, some may not. This is a very personal decision.
• Offer to go with them to any upcoming appointments. For example, returning to the veterinarian clinic to pick up their companion’s ashes may be an emotional experience. Whether they take you up on it or not, your offer of support will help the person know they are not alone.
• Offer to support them to memorialize their companion. Because we do not have formal rituals in place to publicly mourn the loss of our pets the way we do with humans, it becomes even more important to find ways to acknowledge and honour their lives. This could include holding a formal or informal memorial service, crafting a photobook, making something to honour their animal, creating an online memorial, making a donation to a local humane society in their pet’s honour, etc.
• Checking in on them, not just right after their loss, but even weeks and months after. Grief has no timelines.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” -Vicki Harrison
Angie Arora is a Pet Loss Support Group Facilitator and veterinary social worker. She consults practices and animal care workers in Toronto, as well as online internationally, with an emphasis on compassion fatigue. Follow her on twitter @angiearoraNWC .