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  • Writer's pictureLiz Weiner

Making Sense of Pet Loss

Embracing and understanding your messy, beautiful grief.

On January 27, 2018, my heart dog died. A “Heart Pet” is an unofficial term for the pet equivalent of a soul mate. If we’re lucky, we all have one. The day your pet comes into your life will change you forever, and so does the day he dies.

Grief is far from linear — we go through many stages, only some of which I address in this article. I speak through the lens of my training as a mental health therapist and personal experience— the latter more meaningful. While I speak to my experience of losing a dog, the feelings are relatable to the loss of any species — it is about the relationship you shared.

A relationship is a relationship. Period.

In a quick Google search on pet grief, the following suggestion came up, “Does losing a pet count as bereavement?” YES!!! It is unfortunate that we need to ask this, but not surprising in a culture that doesn't always understand the gravity of this loss. As a result, we may feel uneasy about publically expressing our grief.

I would argue that one of, if not the, most significant relationships we ever have is that which we share with our pet. Who else is beside you for X# bearing witness to every beautiful, tragic, and ordinary moment of your life?

I was more devastated when my dog died than when I lost my dad. I feel no shame in admitting that: it’s all about the relationship, and this creature — my best friend, my everything — was the most important soul in my life; whereas I had a somewhat estranged relationship with my dad.

The strength of your relationship dictates your grief, not the relationship label.

Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory Grief is the grief you feel before the actual death. It arises when you know your pet is facing death. Often getting the diagnosis is the beginning of the end. You may become consumed with caretaking, doing anything to keep your pet comfortable, even at the expense of your own routine and sanity. This is a normal part of the process when life as you know it is turned upside down.

Your best friend is dying; pure instinct kicks in. You may be frantic, not thinking clearly, trapped in tunnel vision, and unable to otherwise function as you normally would. You may be making decisions you will likely regret later — not because they were the wrong decisions, but because no matter what path you choose, you will look back and doubt yourself.

Regret and guilt

It’s human nature to want someone or something to blame, and often we turn on ourselves, even when there was nothing we could have done to change the outcome.

Wallace Sife, PhD, author of The Loss of a Pet, has spoken about using retrospect to punish yourself. We might believe that we could have done more, that we did too much, wish we ended it sooner, and wishing you did — or didn’t do — that surgery. It’s an internal battle you won’t win. We make decisions at the moment that seem best for our pet, but when a life ends, we are certain we made the wrong decision when we see the outcome. Regret will taint your memory, making it fuzzy, distorted, and convince yourself that your pet’s death is your fault. It’s not.

Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. Regardless of how things ended, your pet would never want you to suffer.

Complicated Grief

When we struggle to accept what happened, grief becomes complicated, and we get stuck. The Mayo Clinic explains Complicated Grief as grief symptoms that do not fade over time. It is a “heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.” While there is no timeline for grieving, it is harder to move forward if we get stuck — fixated — on the death, or the circumstances of the death. Note, I said MOVE FORWARD, not move on. We never move on after a loss, but healthy grief allows us to move forward. In time, we return to participating in life, as Nora McInerny describes in her famous Ted Talk about the loss of her husband. While she speaks to human death, the process of grieving applies to any loss — remember, it’s about the relationship.

Complicated grief can arise when we cannot make peace with death, affecting our ability to function as we once did that goes on for a prolonged period of time. Counseling and pet bereavement support groups are incredibly valuable to processing your feelings alongside like-minded people.

Traumatic Grief

ALL GRIEF IS TRAUMATIC, but some circumstances of how the loss occurred more than others. Maybe the death was a tragic accident or a pet lost by going missing, which lacks the closure death allows. This type of loss can result in trauma, perhaps been Post Traumatic Distress Disorder or Acute Stress Disorder. These diagnoses can include flashbacks, recurrent thoughts, nightmares, avoidance of reminders of the circumstances of the loss, and a general feeling of detachment.

Our culture doesn’t value pet loss in the way they value human loss

Most companies do not offer bereavement leave for a pet loss. Friends may not understand this commitment when we cancel plans or decline invitations because we need to care for our pet. People may turn their heads after finding out the amount of money we are spending on their medical care. If we were caring for a dying person, our motives would never be questioned.

I will always remember the mortified look from a friend when she found out I was opting for an expensive surgery for my twelve-year-old dog. She went on (and on, and on) about how it wasn’t worth it financially at his age. She didn’t get it, and that’s OK — these are not our people. Seek out your people — again, I cannot stress enough how useful support groups are when you are supported by like-minded individuals who understand what you are going through.

How do I move forward?

While time doesn't heal all wounds as some may preach, it lessens the sharp pain that feels like it will never end. With grief, authenticity — owning your feelings — is essential to getting through them in a healthy way. You have to walk through the pain and not around it. Allow yourself to be sad. To ugly cry. To take time for yourself. Do whatever you need to do without self-doubt or judgment.

For the first month after Tovi died, I slept with his ashes. I needed him close to me in whatever form I could get, and I gave myself that space. I walked alone, sobbing in public, imagining his leash in my now empty hand, while listening to a playlist of somber songs like Barbara Streisand's “Memories”, Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”, and Carly Simon’s “Love of my Life”. It was as pathetic as it sounds, but it was what I needed.

I was so broken I didn’t need — or care for — anyone else’s permission to embrace my emotional state, something I never felt comfortable doing before the loss. The beautiful thing about being broken is that we have an opportunity to grow back stronger. It's cliche but true: you will come out a different person after the loss, for better or worse.

Honor your pet

This will look different for everyone. I have seen people start podcasts, write a book, or start a foundation, but these paramount gestures are not necessary. Memorializing your pet can be something as simple as planting a tree, journaling, holding a memorial service, getting a tattoo, or carving out a space in your home that houses photos and other memorabilia of your pet (leash, collar, clothes, anything). These are just a few of many examples.

The stages reviewed in this piece are far from comprehensive when it comes to pet loss. Pet loss brings a myriad of emotions. For me, these have been the most relatable, which is why I focused on them. This is a complex topic which I will explore further in a series of additional articles.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge that not everyone goes through these stages. The length and intensity of grief are about the strength of the relationship, and how much one has accepted the loss. Some people accept the loss and are able to move forward in a more linear journey than others — that doesn't mean you loved your pet any less. This is a unique journey that you will walk through in your own way. Remember to be gentle with yourself.

I am so sorry for your loss. You are not alone, and while the pain may never end, it will not always be this sharp — that I can promise you. One day when you reflect on the memories stored in your heart and smile instead of sob.

You will never forget, though.

Wishing you peace and healing, Liz

Written by Elizabeth Weiner

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