Grieving the Loss of a Pet.
They say that grieving is the flip side of love. I heard this said and have reflected on it each time I find myself confronted by the emotion of grief. However, there are people I’ve had great love for, and don’t grieve for as much as others, and not as much as for the loss of my dog Silly.
Today would be Silly’s 13th birthday. His birthday was always a day of great joy for me and him, a day we would go to the pet store and anything his nose touched I would buy him. A day that I woke up in my bed, next to him, and tell him how much I love him. A day that we would take his yearly “birthday portrait,” a tradition that I have kept alive with my dogs Goofy and now Maya as well.
Grief, for a pet, is often not understood by most people, this makes people who experience this grief feel like outsiders. Having felt like an outsider much of my life, this is nothing new to me. I feel in ways others don’t often understand, and I am not able to explain the depth of my emotions or feelings. I am comfortable (although at times not) with who I am, how I believe and how I feel. There are times I struggle with the depth of my connection to things that are fleeting, feelings, emotions, relationships and especially animals. I see animals as innocent angels that are misunderstood, unappreciated and suffer greatly at the hand of man. I want to right their wrongs, love them and make the world a better place for them. I struggle with this challenge in my personal relationships with them as well as my work with Bound Angels. I connect on an extremely deep level, deeper than most people I know. I feel their pain and it reminds me of my pains and my struggles. This all delves deeply into the person I am and so much of the complexities that hardly anyone knows about me.
One of the common things that people often say to someone who is grieving the loss of their pet is “Don’t worry, you did the best you could… They’re in a better place now… There will be another one that needs to be saved… God doesn’t open a door where he doesn’t open a window…” and so on. Then there are the people who will compare or undermine your suffering compared to the loss of a real person. This diminishes the griever’s feelings and does nothing but harm.
A good friend of mine once compared the loss of a pet to the loss of a child, and this makes total sense to me. For those who love their dogs / pets deeply, this is an accurate comparison. Dogs are pretty much like children in that they need our care to survive and those who love them often care for them as they would for a child. In our genetic makeup the parent should outlive the child, which is why the greatest loss a person can experience is the loss of their child. For people who don’t have children, this child is often replaced by their love of their pet. It’s logical that the dog is not a child, yet emotionally there is a similarity in the loss one feels. There is nothing wrong, unhealthy or weird about a deep feeling for your pet. People are aware that their dog is not their biological child, yet the emotions of love, compassion and connection are there nonetheless.
I remember deeply how I felt when Silly got sick and I knew he would die. I stopped everything in my life; all I did was care for him. I fed him (with a syringe), cared for him, administered medicine, took him to the doctor, slept on the floor with him when he was too weak to jump up on my bed and spent many sleepless nights just holding him. I remember we would take daily walks on the beach before he got sick. On one of those walks I told him, “When you’re an old man and can’t walk this beach any more, I’ll carry you.” Well that time came before he became an old man. I would carry Silly along the beach daily so he could smell the ocean and hear the waves. This was one of my fondest memories that I still carry with me.
The night he died will live on in my head forever. I relive this day, these moments over and over. I feel the sadness, the pain and the loss I felt when he exhaled his last breath. I replay this scene in my head over and over. There are songs that remind me, words that remind me, smells and sounds that remind me and other times just the nothingness of life reminds me. I knew that I would never be the same after he died and I never have been. Just a few years before Silly died, my rescue dog Boots died in my arms totally unexpectedly. Here, happy and healthy one moment, then dead in my arms the next. The vet said it was a sudden cardiac arrest. Boots is buried next to Silly and I go visit them at the cemetery regularly and it’s been 7+ years. Each time I cry, I reflect and I contemplate the meaning of it all. I don’t think there is a meaning other than that which we give it, yet I search…
I remember reading a book by Ester Jungreis called “The Committed Life.” In this book someone comments to her how her father helped them grieve through the toughest loss they had experienced. When she asked what he said to them that was so profound, the person said, “He said nothing, he just cried with me.” It is this lesson that changed my life. It taught me how to grieve and how to share grief with others. When my friends have lost pets (or people) to console them, I lean on the lesson I learned from this amazing book. I just sit with them, cry with them and let them talk. I don’t try to justify it, explain it or tell my side. I just listen; I hold them and I cry with them. I found that this is the best medicine, if there is one, for pain. Sharing that pain can take just a little of the burden off of the person experiencing it. If I am crying and someone cries with me, they are sharing that burden. Sadness explained still equals sadness, yet sadness shared lightens the experience ever so slightly.
Allowing people to grieve is profound. I’ve always said that the only way I’ve made it through the lowest times of my life is by going through them. I’ve been asked, “Why are you down? Just be happy.” As if happiness was a decision. Perhaps it is to some people, but there are those that can’t just make that decision, and these are the people who feel deeply and sometimes walk on the darker side of life – raw to every emotion a feeling that rips through their flesh. Those with deep feelings often feel like the common person can’t understand them. There’s more to it than what meets the eye. To us there isn’t a simple swipe that makes things better. To us it’s not about distractions or replacements, it’s about going through the experience and coming out the other side, like being sucked through a wormhole and hoping that the other side has some light.
How long the experience of sadness and grief lasts, no one knows. It’s profound and while in it, it seems like it will never end. The end is NOT in sight and the more someone tries to talk you out of your feelings, the deeper in you spiral. If you want to be a friend to someone in a situation like this, just be there. Don’t try to fix the problem, just listen, share and let them experience it. When the sadness is a loss, be compassionate, and understand that you might not be able to understand.
And, if you’re the person in the experience of loss or darkness, understand that you are not alone. There are many people who share a pain similar to yours, who understand what you’re feeling. Even though at this moment you feel as you are totally alone in a dark place with no light, no feeling of hope, you’ve found yourself hopeless before and you probably will again. It’s the fabric of what you are made of, it’s what makes you – YOU. It’s these feelings of darkness that also let you experience profound joy, laughter and happiness… the ability to connect on and experience these levels that others don’t understand and will never feel, gives definition to who you are and how you experience this journey of life.
I’ve felt like an outsider much of my life, either misunderstood or not understood at all. I know I feel differently, deeper and connect in ways that many don’t understand. I embrace it at times, hate it at times, love it sometimes but know that I can’t change it any time. It’s who I am. I feel deeply and connect deeply. My sadness is mine and I own it.
I hope that sharing this with you will give you some sort of glimmer that you’re not alone, that the depth of your sadness over the loss of a pet (or someone) is not wrong, or strange or weird, it is who you are and there are others who share it to one degree or another. I’m grateful to have experienced the depths of my emotions over the losses in my life, for this gives greater meaning to the experience itself.