Processing pet loss through writing and the precautions we should take
“Tovi,” Photo by Jenni Combs
When I sit down to write about Tovi, I freeze. Is it writer's block or writer's pain? It’s a fine line I often wonder about.
Writing can be a great way to cope with loss. I have found solace and self-forgiveness through journaling. Writing for a broader audience, though, is more complicated. My thoughts have to be composed, maybe even have a subtle takeaway — something more coherent than my journal's loose sentences blurred by tear-stained ink.
Why does it matter if I write about the dog whose loss has left me in so much pain — pain that reawakens when I bring my mind back to the traumatic ending of his life?
Here’s why: Despite the pain, it feels like a gift to myself, to him, and something that provides concrete evidence of his time on earth. I need to remember before time taints the memories. Photos capture moments, but the details — the emotions — are missing. I want to seize the artifacts of our life before they are buried deeper and become harder to excavate. We think we will remember forever, and while the way an experience made us feel never fades, the details lose their clarity.
This is where it gets complicated
Along with the benefits, like many things, the experience of writing about loss isn’t all or nothing. Sure, it’s healing, but it’s also heavy. Debilitatingly heavy. It pins me down and leaves me stuck all day. It triggers my depression — my grief — and I find myself longing for a life that no longer exists. I’m left frustrated and resentful.
Yet, I never feel as close to Tovi as when I write about him.
My greatest struggle with being a writer is reliving the details of painful memories to the point where I feel I am right back there. It’s not always a bad thing, but always a hard thing. I’m relieving the trauma, which can be dangerous if we haven’t found some peace around the loss. As Doran Lamb writes in her article,Is Writing Making You Sick,“… a trauma response is my sign to stop writing.”
Writers who are more seasoned than I have advised that we can only write about something in a meaningful way once we have achieved proper emotional distance. But what if that never comes, and I still want to do it? I do the best I can with where I am.
We can do hard things, but should we?
Three and a half years later, I still struggle to complete a letter to him I began a few months after he died. The letter captures every detail of the twelve beautiful years of our life together. Despite the time that had passed, I hadn’t reached the proper emotional distance and would melt into a crying mess, unable to function for the rest of the day.
I could only work on the letter in small increments before becoming flooded with emotions I wasn’t ready to process. It made writing feel unhealthy for me, so I went months without opening the document, only to try again and find myself not much further along. I had so much to say, and I raced to get it down on paper because I knew the minutiae would be harder to recall as time passed. The writing hurt and looked more like scribbled notes that only I could understand rather than a polished piece of work to share. I want a polished piece documenting our life together, so I keep at it.
There is a fine line between avoidance and protecting myself from true pain.
I suppose I needed that space then to protect myself. But today, over three years later, the details of our lives are harder to capture and I have regrets about that — I wish I kept at writing about him in some capacity. It pains me not to remember how he smelled, or the way he nudged me with his nose when he wanted to be pet, or how he whimpered with excitement when we approached a trail. I was only reminded of these dormant memories when I saw them in another dog. I’ll never forget the day I broke down in Petsmart at the sound of a dog whimpering in excitement.
Do I continue to trigger myself to the point of depression, or do I dive in and keep swimming? The process of writing is typically an easy swim, occasionally interrupted by waves, of course. But when I would write about Tovi, the waves would knock me over, and I felt like I was drowning without a lifeguard present to save me. I continue to go there, though, because what I have to write is more beautiful than the pain that comes with it. And in time, the emotional waves have calmed.
As Glennon Doyle says, “we can do hard things.” I would caveat that by saying as long as we can maintain safety while doing them.
Creating safety around loss
One way to create safety is to seek professional help. Therapy around pet loss is underrated because pet loss is seen as a disenfranchised type of grief — society doesn’t recognize it as the loss that it is. We don’t receive time off work, and there is a general lack of understanding of the gravity of the loss.
Losing Tovi was more debilitating than losing my dad — it’s about the relationship. Our pets are our constant companions, comfort in a scary world, and our world revolves around them. When we lose them, we lose so much more than their physical presence — we lose our routine, daily structure, and a sense of purpose as a caretaker and best friend.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of a standard course of grief include: “Accepting the reality of your loss, allowing yourself to experience the pain of your loss, adjusting to a new reality in which the deceased is no longer present, and having other relationships.”
Grief is never easy. There is no manual, but counseling is especially important when grief becomes complicated grief. This occurs when grief is heightened to the point of intense sorrow, pain, and rumination — overpowering emotions that stunt the healing process. Nora McInerny said in her infamous TED Talk about losing her husband, “we don’t move on, we move forward.”
When we find ourselves stuck and unable to move forward, counseling becomes essential.
While there is no timeline for grief, the years that have passed have sadly lessened the sharpness of my pain. I say sadly because there remains a part of me that fears losing the pain that provides a connection to him, albeit a painful one.
The more I process, the less painful the traumatic connection becomes, and remembering our life together becomes the connection. I know writing is the only way for me to get there.
Writing with armbands
Before stepping into that emotional pool known to me as “Writing about Tovi,” I visualize a photo by Fernando Jorge of a child putting on inflatable armbands. I metaphorically put my armbands on. When I get out, anticipating the emotional exhaustion, I give myself the space to wrap myself in a warm blanket and decompress with a Hallmark movie, a yoga class, or a grounding walk. [Fill in the blank to suit what comforts you.]
I think I have more distance than I give myself credit for at this point, and I can only confirm that if I stay the course instead of shutting down, even if it is a collective of time comprised of brief increments throughout the day or week. I continue to experience complicated grief as I still long for the past and struggle to accept my current reality, which includes another dog I struggle to bond with as my heart remains attached to Tovi. Counseling continues for me, and I write about him when I can.
Meet yourself where you are
The best insight I can offer is to know where you are — paying attention to what may or may not happen to your body and respecting when you need to stop. That might look different each day.
I will enter that pool only on days when I feel strong enough, and that's OK, as long as I’m still getting in regularly as my grief allows. The more I expose myself to hard things, the stronger I get. Even though getting into that cold water is uncomfortable, once immersed in it, my body adjusts, and a comfortable temperature is maintained. The hardest part is getting in.
Let your body be your guide and get out when the water gets too deep. You can always get back in another time. Processing your grief has no deadline, so swim at your own pace.
Written by Elizabeth Weiner