For many people it may be difficult to understand how the loss of a beloved pet can trigger a deep grief process. When we lose a family member or a close friend, our loss is usually met with sympathy and condolences. We are allowed to grieve. But, talk to a pet owner who has lost an animal companion and you will hear quite a different story.
I know from clients in my therapy practice, as well as from my own personal experience, that many people do not understand the depth of grief at the loss of a pet.
The relationship with pets is multidimensional. When a pet dies we lose a being that offers unconditional love in an uncomplicated and accepting way that few human relationships achieve.
Guilt is one of the primary stumbling blocks to a healthy grieving process. The potential for guilt abounds in a pet/human relationship. The grieving owner wonders: Did I do enough? If only I had…. If we are unsure about whether all options were exhausted, guilt may hinder moving through grief effectively.
Moreover, if our pet died in a way we perceive could have been avoided, the duration and severity of guilt can be intensified. “I shouldn’t have left the gate open, even for a second and he wouldn’t have run into the street” or “I wish I had noticed her symptoms sooner, because she’d be alive today if I had.” Such comments only serve to punish us even further.
For some, the loss of a pet reawakens an old loss, one that was not, perhaps, fully grieved. This complicates the current mourning process. It is then important to not only mourn the lost pet, but to take this opportunity to achieve closure on earlier losses.
Staying conflicted about the death of our pets binds us to our deceased companion, keeping us closer to the time when he or she was alive. Letting go of grief can also be mistakenly interpreted as a betrayal, that trying to feel better is equated with trying to forget. That is not the goal of grieving. We’ll always love our pet. Healthy grieving is getting “through,” not over, a loss.
Mindful grieving informs us to allow ourselves to feel what is there, without judgment. When my dog Shanti died, I felt a painful sadness. Although I wanted the pain to go away, I needed to non-judgmentally acknowledge it, feel it, and let it be. It was important in that moment that I didn’t resist it or strive to make it any different, but just feel it as it was.
Grief is a natural part of the human experience. It means we have loved and it means we are honoring that love. If you are mourning for a recent pet loss make sure to make time for feeling the emotions that arise, whether they are anger, sadness, or pain. There is no need to judge these emotions as good or bad and know that it is Ok to feel these and they will not last forever as all things come and go.
September 23, 2012