I’ve got to say; writing last week’s post, “Courage’s Story” A Pet Quality-of-Life Lesson,” opened the door to a flood of emotions, likely spill over into this follow-up post about pet loss. Honestly, many people tell me the death of their pet was far more traumatic than the death of an aging relative. Pet loss grief can be an intense experience – especially when (as in Courage’s case) – when the pet’s illness is prolonged and difficult.
First, The End of Courage’s Story
I can’t remember what day of the week it was – or even the date –when I picked up the phone and tearfully spoke to the receptionist at our vet’s office. More than anything, I needed him to come to the house to euthanize Courage as soon as he was able. Our mutual suffering was becoming too much for us to handle; we were up at all hours of the night in his restlessness.
No doubt she could tell how much my heart ached. I was both emotionally and physically exhausted with his round-the-clock care. Add to that my ex-husband’s illness, and I was beside myself with sorrow and fear. Sadly, my vet was out-of-town, but she told me she could recommend another.
Naturally, the tears started all over again when his receptionist answered. Somehow, she managed to calm me down and, in short order, an appointment arranged for 5:00 p.m. that evening.
I had two hours with Courage before the vet was due, and I think I held Courage and cried the whole time. No, that’s not right; I had a fight with my youngest son (then about 25) because he couldn’t bear to stay during the procedure. We yelled at one another over Courage’s head; I still regret creating such an environment for him. Not only that, I repeatedly called Matt, my ex, but his line was busy. (What that meant – at this time in his cancer treatment, he had fallen asleep after a call, without turning off the phone. I was so angry with him, as he had promised to come over to support me. As we all have learned at one time or another, things have a way of working out for the best. After all, It was just me and Courage, and I am so fortunate to have had that precious opportunity.
Just a Bit More…
My son came home as soon as the vet was gone, and together we took Courage over to his dad’s house for burial (near Gus, the dog whose death started all this). It was a bittersweet time: we woke Matt, who brought out bright outdoor lights, and he and I sat together and watched as Nathan dug his dog’s grave. We were home by about 8:30, and I went straight to bed, where I cried myself to sleep. It had all been ‘too much’ for me – and the days following his death weren’t much easier. Pet loss grief, which had accompanied me for months in the guise of anticipatory grief – a complex of emotions I had come to know since Thanksgiving Day, 2012, when Matt was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Read about it in “Anticipatory Grief: One Woman’s Story.”
Now that Courage was gone, it was time to grieve his death. Most people understand just how devastating a pet’s passing can be – but there are some who simply don’t know why you’re so upset.
That means, it can be a challenge to grieve openly about the death of a pet. For that reason alone, cultivating good self-care practices while in the throes of pet loss grief is essential. Here are 4 tips to help you through the pet loss grief journey; I like to call them the “Four Rs and an M:”
1. Reserve time each day to actively grieve, thereby releasing your emotions
2. Reflect often upon the life shared between yourself and your beloved pet. Write about it, or use a digital recorder. Think of it as a cleansing of heart and mind.
3. Resolve to take care of your basic needs: get enough sleep and be sure to eat (even if you’re not hungry – grieving is hard work).
4. Remain attentive to the needs of your other pets, adhering to their usual routine as much as possible. They too are feeling the loss you know; so allow time for you all to comfort one another.
5. Memorialize your pet. In other words, dedicate time to come together with family and friends to celebrate the personality and life of your pet and honor the spirit.
Letting Go of Pet “Ownership:” The Cumulative Effects of Pet Loss
Courage wasn’t the only dog I came to love; there were at least 7 others who joined me in life’s trials and tribulations. But it was Courage who’s death (and the subsequent grief) affected me so deeply; enough to force me to vow I’d never have another pet, as long as I lived.
I’ve held to that promise; but it doesn’t mean there aren’t animals in my life. I have the joy of loving and sometimes caring for a neighbor’s pets, Duchess the Dog and Sunny the cat. And yes, I love them; I guess my heart didn’t close all the way that day.
Looking for additional help in dealing with the death of a pet? Stop by Urn Garden’s Learning Center, where there are many articles of interest, including “Coping with the Loss of a Pet,” and the thought-provoking “What I Learned from My Dogs.”