Life After Grief Ė Dealing With Pet Loss
Grief is the price you pay for love

By Gene Levine, President, Humane Animal Treatment Charity, Inc.

Didnít we have fun with our loving pets when they were alive? Sure we did and thatís why, when we lose a cherished pet we experience an awful, empty void filled with nothing but the longing to have our pet back with us. It makes no difference if weíre talking about a dog, cat, hamster, bird, rabbit, horse or any other loving pet or if we lost our pet to a prolonged illness; a sudden injury, or the petís old age. Nor does it make any difference if an act of God or a serious change in your life Ė such as a severe illness Ė requires moving you into some place that prohibits pets. Whatever the reason, including pets that have run away or been stolen; when we lose a pet that we loved, we grieve.

Psychologists have found that the grief over the loss of a pet can easily equal the loss of a child. While alive, we often referred to our pets as our "heart" because they were so much a part of us. The deprivation of that companion who was our best friend, our confidante; always there; loyal and true; can leave many at a significant loss since one of the most important emotional anchors of our life is gone.

I have experienced the personal loss of many loving pets and overcame the ensuing grief using a process that I will soon share with you. Because of and through my former pet memorial business, Iíve counseled many grieving pet owners in person and through letters and emails. The cumulative experience Iíve gained on how to deal with the loss of a beloved pet works. Iím not a professional pet bereavement counselor but I will try to offer you friendly, well-meaning advice with the hope it will give you some direction and measure of help on how best to cope with your loss. If my ideas and suggestions still donít help you it may be time for you to see a pet bereavement counselor or your veterinarian.

A.  INTRODUCTION

We are all different and so are pets. So there is no one answer to overcoming grief that will work for everyone. One thing I will share with you now is that healing takes time. How much time? According to feedback Iíve gotten from our customers and professional pet grief counselors it is known that grief doesnít run on a schedule. As a matter of fact the whole healing process can be compared to the length of a length of string; it is always as long as beginning to end.

Some things that determine how fast you will heal and love again will be the relationship you had with your pet, your personality, your outlook on life, what happened to your pet, what type of resting place and memorials youíll choose, how you avail yourself of support groups, books, information and the multitude of other healing resources.

Although I can try to aid you and point you in the right direction, itís up to you to decide whatís right for you. What I'm about to offer will also offer some solace to those who are facing the prospect of a loss of pet in the near future. 

B.  THE 5 STEPS TO UNDERSTANDING AND OVERCOMING GRIEF

Letís begin by trying to understand the multi-faceted andmulti-dimensional agony called grief.

How one grieves and finds ways to cope with a loss of a loving pet can bring one closer to the day when memories bring smiles instead of tears. So, in simple terms, there is unanimity of opinion from pet bereavement counselors, veterinarians and psychologists that there are five steps from shock to happiness that everyone goes through. First Iíll list them and then expand upon each of them.

I.        Denial/Shock/Disbelief

II.      Anger

III.    Bargaining

IV.   Depression

V.     Acceptance/Resolution/Recovery

I. Denial

Denial is our mindís buffer against a sharp emotional blow. Denial is a pet ownerís initial response when confronted with a petís terminal condition or sudden death. This rejection of death seems to be natureís way of offering us protection until we can realize and cope with our loss.

If the relationship with our pet was sincere and bonding we will be shocked over its death or loss. Shock is a normal, natural reaction. Human feelings towards their departed pets are so special that pet bereavement counselors have a term for that relationship: The human-companion, animal bond. When this relationship is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming; and we grieve.

Regardless of how and why the pet is gone, we are devastated and left with only an emptiness that we may choose not to accept. If you donít accept your pet's departure you are in denial and not accepting the fact that your pet wonít greet you when you come home, or that it doesnít need its evening meal. I know of pet owners who carry this to extremes, fearing that their pet is still alive and suffering somewhere. Others find it hard to get a new pet for fear of being ďdisloyalĒ to the old.

CONSIDERATION Denial is non-productive and delays true healing. Hard as it may seem to you now, one day you will accept your loss because your pet would have wanted it that way. Your cherished pet never wanted to hurt you or see you cry. Even now, it still wants you to love. So love again you must.

II. Anger

In the immediate aftermath of true sadness we get angry. This anger may be directed at the illness that killed your pet, the person who left the gate open when the dog ran away, the rescue shelter that was less than truthful about your petís past, the driver of the speeding car, family members, friends, or a veterinarian who ďfailedĒ to save its life. Regardless of whether true or false, such recriminations do little to relive your grief.

We can all recognize anger such as hostility or aggression, but how we deal with it varies by individuals. Anger often turns inward; emerging as guilt and an endless number of ďIf onlysĒ Anger hinders the healing process and distracts you from the important task of resolving your grief.

CONSIDERATION What ever happened, happened, so tuck the memory of your pet into that special place in your heart reserved for your most pleasant memories and then go on with your life.

III. Bargaining

As we progress through the process of grieving there is much documentation that shows some pet caregivers may try bargaining with a higher power, themselves, or even their pet to restore life. Hoping that a pet might recover from a serious illness and impending death often fosters ďbargainingĒ reactions and some sacrifice like, ďIf Rover recovers, Iíll never skip his regular walk . . . never put him in a kennel when I go on vacation . . . , never . . .

CONSIDERATION Think about it, who are you bargaining with? The only one that can help the situation is you and because you love your pet youíre doing or have done everything you could do. If bargaining makes you feel better then bargain, but will that get you anywhere?

IV. Depression/Guilt

Shakespeare said it best: Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so. How you think about your loss therefore can help you avoid depression or push you into it.

Recognize that depression is a natural consequence of grief, so to properly deal with guilt and depression youíll need to climb out of the wallowing self-pity shell youíre in and seek the support of family, friends and support groups. Empathy from others who understand pet loss is a most important trait to seek out and sadly, itís one of the most difficult things to find because people, unless they are the ones closest to you, really donít want to be around a depressed individual.

So there you have it, donít expect society to offer you a great deal of sympathy. Youíll even have people who will unknowingly hurt you with thoughtless statements such as, Itís only a cat. You can always get another one. Such a statement would never reach your ears if it were the loss of a human friend or family member. Still, I guarantee someone will say something similar to you. So prepare yourself for it and decide now how you will react if you ever hear it.

CONSIDERATION If you feel somewhat responsible for your petís death you may get depressed and feel guilty and the, if only I had done more syndrome kicks in. This attitude will unfortunately make things more difficult to promote healing. ďcould of,Ē ďwould of,Ē ďshould ofĒ may be normal things to feel but, you didnít do those things, so get over it.

Avoid escalating your guilt to where it becomes extreme depression and robs you of motivation and energy that will cause you to wallow in your sorrow. Thatís why you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and realize that unchecked depression can move you to a point where it hinders the resolution of your grief leaving you powerless to cope with your feelings. Easier said then done, but itís what you have to try to do.

Donít think that if you arenít suffering over your petís death, it means that youíve turned your back on your pet; betrayed them and forgotten him or her. If you truly loved your pet then make a promise that you will never forget. Then, when you're ready, actuate that promise with a suitable memorial.

You are not alone with your feelings of grief. Gain strength and learn from thousands of other pet owners who experienced similar strong feelings and survived. You need to go on with life and try not to burden yourself with guilt for any accident or illness that claimed your petís life. Time is a wonderful healer so itís kind of pointless and often erroneous to blame yourself for things you didnít do.

V.  Acceptance/Resolution/Recovery

Think of this as you look for the light at the end of the tunnel. People generally love their pets and consider them members of their family. Pets are a source of comfort and companionship so we celebrate their birthdays, talk to them and carry pictures of them in our wallets. So when your beloved pet went over the rainbow bridge, itís not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your sorrow and devastated by the loss of your relationship.

Your pet provided you with emotional support, acceptance, companionship and unconditional love during the time s/he shared with you. If you understand and accept this bond between you and your pet, youíve already taken the first step toward coping with your loss Ė knowing that when your pet died it was okay for you to grieve.

Forget those people who donít understand your bond with your pet because they may not understand your pain. All that matters, however, is how you feel. Donít let others dictate your feelings: How you feel is a valid response to your loss and may be extremely painful. So donít let anyone tell you youíre being silly, crazy, or overly sentimental.

Healing begins when you realize that you have a right to feel pain and grief. The pet you loved has died, and you have the right to feel alone and bereaved; to feel anger and guilt. First, acknowledge those feelings, then, ask yourself whether the circumstances actually justify them.

CONSIDERATION Understand that trying to hide your grief wonít make it disappear. I suggest you do what helps you the most; verbalize it, shed tears, shriek, bang the walls and floor and/or talk it out with others. Avoiding your grief by not thinking about your pet won't heal you as fast as examining your honest feelings and recollecting the good times you shared. By analyzing and coming to terms with your feelings you'll find your way out of the grief maze. 

Try to express your feelings by writing down poems, stories, or letters to your deceased pet and tastefully displaying memorabilia. Another valid thing to do is to rearrange your schedule to fill in the times you would have spent with your pet.

Others found that by creating a loving online pet memorial also helped them to cope with the loss of their pet, The process of creating an online memorial gives you time to reflect creatively on your pets life and your relationship. Reviewing pet memorials created by others could provide many comforting stories and memorials that helped others cope with their pet loss. Finally, Grief councilors all agree that a most important step in healing Ė regardless of what stage you do it in Ė is to find a suitable memorial that will help you remember the good times you shared with your pet.

Acceptance and the ability to love again will occur when you finally admit to your loss and remember your pet with decreasing sadness. Remember, not everyone follows these classic stages of grief ó some may skip or repeat a stage, or experience the stages in a different order.

I hope the ideas contained in this message helped you
on the path to grief recovery as much as they helped others.

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