Dealing with the loss of a pet and how to move on
Loss takes many forms. We lose things, our minds, our inhibitions… and even ourselves, sometimes. And we lose people — whether through conflict, distance, breaking up, drifting apart or death. And we grieve all losses, even the little ones like lost keys or wallets, even if just for a moment. Our hearts hurt until we either find the object or we can move the pain to a place we can manage. Or, as with things many times, the feeling just fades. We’ll touch on some of that at some point in our journey through Sleep Club, but today? Well, today, we’re talking losing your best friend, that solid go to, that being who always has your back no matter what.
Not to get too technical on something so deeply personal, but studies show that losing a furry friend can be harder to get over than losing a human. Why? Because, “Pets provide us with so much love that the loss is almost more than what we'd experience losing a human loved one,” or so says Kristine Kevorkian, Ph.D., (ironically, no relation to Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, although he is a hero of hers) a Los Angeles-based end-of-life and grief counselor. We have so little if any unconditional love in our lives and our pets genuinely give that to us. You read stories of animals who have been brutalized and, yet, completely fall in love with their rescue families with no judgment, no baggage, fully.
Your hamster doesn’t care that you work at the local fast food restaurant. Your snake has no idea that you own a Toyota instead of a Tesla. Your cat doesn’t care that you didn’t get the role of a lifetime on a Lifetime show. And your dog has no idea you don’t make enough to take that high-maintenance girl from work out to the newest, hottest restaurant. You feed, care for, house and actively love them. You’re good.
When that unconditional, wide-eyed, “You are PERFECT!” respondent is out of our lives, not just because they walked away or we drifted apart, but because they died, we are devastated. It’s why people clone their pets. All you want is one more day of “I truly love you no matter what you wear, smell like, do for a living, sound like, drive, eat — take your pick” to greet you at the door, lay in your lap, lick your face, purr in your ear, curl around your arm, whatever.
There was a Twitter frenzy a while ago over a post that had to do with what was the hardest part of euthanizing a pet. The question of the “what?” was posed to a veterinarian and the Twitter-verse went batshit crazy. This is how it went down, “Asked my vet what the hardest part was about his job & he said when he has to put an animal down 90% of owners don’t actually want to be in the room when he injects them so the animal’s last moments are usually them frantically looking around for their owners & tbh that broke me.”
Death is hard for the living. We who are left feel remorse not only for those who are gone but because we’re left here without them. It’s called SURVIVOR’S REMORSE. It’s a malady that afflicted those still living first responders and survivors of the World Trade Center, anyone who has walked away from a car wreck that others didn’t, and those who washed up alive on the shores of tsunamis only to look over and see their loved ones cold and lost forever. “Why me and not them?” we think.
Now add that to the finite life of animals and if we are pet people at all, we will have many who we will outlive in our lifetime. It’s a fact of nature. And there are animals who live beyond us. Remember the story of Hachiko? The dog in Japan whose owner died at work while he was waiting for him to come home on the train, as usual? Hachiko went back to the train station every day for the rest of his life, waiting for his owner. There’s a statue to him at that station. His confusion and pain must have been overwhelming.
And that’s how we feel when our friend is taken from us. We don’t really know what to do. It’s why some of us can’t be there when our furry friend is being laid to rest. With a pet, they’ve known you to be there and have been there for you. Always. At that moment when life is hitting your furry bestie the hardest, scaring them the most, they look for you, their constant — and if you’re nowhere to be found, that fear, that sadness must be incomprehensible. That’s what hurt two different vet hospital staff the most. That moment of aloneness.
I’m not trying to be a downer. Really, I’m not. But losing that special being takes its toll. It doesn’t make it any less painful knowing it’s coming. However, there are ways to move forward so you can celebrate rather than lament the life you got to share while discovering you can open yourself up not close yourself off to a new life in your world. Here are four that, quite honestly? I found worked for me.
Give yourself time
This is someone who has been a part of your life, a part of your entire family’s life quite possibly, for a very long time. Give it the attention and grieving it needs. I lost my dog, Sunflower, a few years ago and I still feel her loss.
Feeling guilty? You’re not alone
Per a licensed clinical social worker who provides pet loss counseling to people, it’s completely normal to feel guilty about the death of your pet. “Almost all pet owners feel guilty — no matter what the cause of death — even though they love their pets and would have done anything for them,” Janet Zimmerman says.
The “why?” is that our pets are our forever children. They rely on us for everything and we take care of them. It’s the contract we made when we bought, adopted, rescued, saved, found them, and brought them into our homes. They will never move out to go to college, they’ll never become adults and pay their own bills, they will never get married and start their own family. We are their provider, their supporter, their number one. But, when it’s time just as with people, it’s time. And there is nothing we can do about it nor could have done to prevent it.
Do something to keep their memory alive
I mentioned Sunflower — great name. Great dog. A sunflower is what she looked like — a blonde Lab mixed with whatever making her this beautiful golden, deep brown-eyed sinuous creature with a very old soul. Creating a space that keeps that pet with you, even in spirit, is something highly recommended. I buy sunflowers for her every week. I put them in a vase with her tag hanging from it. It comforts me, makes me feel closer to her and helps me miss her, but in a good way, a healthy, accepting way.
Take your time with that “Let’s get a new Fluffy!” thing
Lumi, our newest addition, is a little girl — 14 pounds tops. She’s a ShiPoo — Shitzu/Poodle mix. She’s white hence the name Lumi, which means “fresh snow” in Finnish. She walks under our dog Moon’s legs and the two play together. But she’s not Sunflower. Other than the fact that she’s female, a dog, and a rescue, she and Sunflower are nothing alike. I never compare them and that’s the point in getting a new same-species pet. Just as marrying someone new shouldn’t be a re-do of your previous spouse, finding a new pet needs to be their own unique being. That way, you’ll never resent them for NOT being the one before, they’ll never feel they’re less than to you, and you can honor the memory of the one who has left.
Easy to love..
Loss is hard. Of any kind. We’ve established that. But just think… for a brief time, you got to share a life with a creature who loved you with no judgment, no boundaries, no preconceived notions of what you should be. That memory lives forever. Some people never experience that. Now you have.