I cannot imagine a life without pets, nor do I want to! And, by the way, the more the merrier! Pets bring us so much joy and comfort. As a child, I remember putting doll clothes on a few very tolerant dogs and cats, running through the yard with a pack of dachshunds, throwing numerous tennis balls, and the endless entertainment of catnip and feathers. As I got older, throughout some of my darkest moments, when I felt as though no one understood me, I knew my pet did. A furry BFF always willing to listen or ready for the next adventure. There are countless photos and memories with so many furry friends that I will forever cherish.
Unfortunately, as we know, our precious pets will not live the length of time we might desire. Do we take our time with them for granted? Sometimes. Do we know when they will take their final breath? Not really. Will we be robbed of time with them because they were cursed with cancer, an incurable disease, or suffered a tragedy? Maybe. Depending on the circumstances, the cascading of memories to the end is not always what we hope it to be. Every pet and their companions’ story is different; some experiences are more manageable than others. For me, the pain exists on a continuum. Not because they did not all mean something but because of the bond and the circumstances.
Images vividly etched in my memory… The moment I received the call, Dandi, a dachshund with whom I spent 16 years of my life, was gone. Seeing my beloved kitty, Mr. Belvadere, whom I had spent 17 years with, decline and then receive the call. For the first time in my life, I was the one to make the decision to euthanize a pet, our first greyhound, Niyla. Holding my best friend, Marilyn, as she fell asleep on my shoulder. Taking my sweet Cass out to potty and knowing that would be the last time I carried her up the stairs. While driving to and from the vet’s office when at-home euthanasia was not an option with my heart hound, Hope. The moment of passing itself. The music that was playing on the car ride, the clothes I was wearing, and the sounds and smells. The devastation of losing two of my girls within 10 days of each other and the months leading up to those excruciating moments. Each experience is beyond gut-wrenching and seemingly worse than the one before. The anxiety and anguish of it all… “Is this really the time?” “Are they in pain?!” and the feelings of guilt and regret… “Did I make the right choice?!” “What if I could have done more?!” “I feel like a murderer!” These are all very real feelings and questions I have asked myself.
It is expected to repeatedly replay those last moments in your mind and feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Those who are grieving often describe feelings of sorrow, loneliness, and guilt, not feeling like themselves, changes in appetite, and changes in sleep patterns. And let’s not forget the seemingly endless stream of tears! Grief looks different for everyone, and the purpose is not to “get over” the loss of our pet but to integrate the experience into our story according to our own timeline. You will never eliminate the pain from a loss, but it should ease some over time. If, after several weeks, you find yourself struggling with the depth of your sorrow and guilt, your ability to function daily is impaired, and you are not utilizing healthy coping skills, it may be time to seek support through a support group or counselor. Support can also be found through books. I often recommend When Your Pet Dies by Dr. Alan Wolfelt and, for the younger crowd, The Invisible Leash by Patrice Karst.
When we are ready, finding ways to celebrate and honor our pet’s life can allow us to further heal and integrate our experience. Here are a few tips that I have found helpful in navigating the losses of my furry friends:
-Connect with others who have had similar experiences
-Take time off if needed, and if you are able
-Acknowledge (don’t avoid!) the pain you are feeling and allow yourself to reflect and share openly
-Create a memorial
-Open your heart to new furriends when the time is right
Every pet throughout my life has brought me so much comfort and joy. And with each passing, my heart shatters into innumerable pieces. Still, the rewards far exceed the pain I know will someday come, so I will continue as I am. I hope you will, too.