When my feline companion, Charlie Boy died, I was distraught and needed time to recover. As a School Psychologist in Los Angeles Schools, I was needed at my school because no subs were available to handle my cases. My supervisor asked what was wrong. I told her the truth. “My cat died.”
She said, “Bereavement days are only allowed if there is a death in the family.” I replied, “But Charlie was a member of my family.”
I was not allowed a sick day.
Realizing there was a need to change social attitudes toward pet loss, I began to offer bereavement counseling in my private practice. Many of my clients just needed someone to validate their grief. Most well-meaning friends and family told them “It’s just a cat,” or “get another one” as if their beloved friend was replaceable. This advice tended to prolong the depression as it made them feel something was wrong with their sadness and they should get over it as quickly as possible. It also trivialized what to them was a devastating loss.
What they needed most was the knowledge that their feelings were normal. One client confessed that this was worse than the death of her parents. Here are some strategies for coping with your pet’s death.
- Permission to grieve — You deserve to mourn as deeply as you would the death of any member of your family. This is a profound loss. Learning that you are entitled to grieve for as long as you need to, and being encouraged to feel the pain, will help you heal your broken heart.
- Memorialize — Plan a small service with close friends only — share photos and stories — light candles. This is a time to honor and validate the relationship you had with your pet.
- Sacred Space — Set up a corner or table for your memorabilia; photos, collar and tags, a special toy, candles... a poem, ashes in an urn (if you choose to cremate). This is a place where you can feel your pet’s energy and talk to him/her.
- Cry — Crying is very healing and natural. Cry as often and as long as you need to. You are entitled to mourn.
- Nurture — Get a massage, go to a spa, get a manicure, pedicure, eat a hot fudge sundae… in other words, give yourself a luxury you might not usually have.
- Exercise and Rest — Take a walk by the shore. Get lots of rest, take naps... your body and psyche have been injured and need to recover. For a sudden death without warning, you may feel as if you’ve been hit by a truck. You need recovery time as with any injury.
- Avoid Toxins — Stay away from people who do not “get” it, those who try to rush you through this, or tell you to get over it, or “get another one.” People may ask you when you are going to replace the pet? This is toxic. If a child dies, would it be appropriate to ask when they were going to replace the child?
- Write — This is one of the most valuable tools for recovery. Start writing for l5 minutes a day (or longer). Use long hand. Write it raw, and rough. Do not edit or be concerned about grammar or spelling. You can do that later if you want to. For now just write it. Put in all the details, be specific. Write about the death of your pet when you are able to. Read it aloud. Share it with someone whom you trust with your deepest feelings.
- Pet Loss Groups & Books — Reach out to support groups. You are not alone in this. Many people are suffering silently and need to talk with others who understand their feelings.
A highly-recommended book is Goodbye Friend by Gary Kowalski. Check out Amazon.com for other listings.
- Guilt — Everyone feels it... If only I had done this, or that, or not waited so long, or waited longer, or not left the door open, or changed vets — If only... Know that you did the very best you could — that your pet is out of pain, and stop hurting yourself with doubt or guilt. You loved this special animal and gave him/her the best you could give. You didn’t abandon him when he/she was ill. Appreciate the gifts you gave, and the love you offered.
Finally, please know you will get through this rough time. This is a life experience. It deepens your ability to feel compassion and love. Later, you will help others with their losses, and you will understand how they feel. This is the deepest level of connection we humans have. And our animals have given this to us. We must show our gratitude to them for enriching our lives.
I believe animals are our connection to each other. By allowing yourself the time, space and permission to grieve, you become a more balanced human capable of loving again. And you will.
Marian, a licensed family therapist and educational psychologist has been a consultant and animal-assisted therapy specialist for the PAC program at the UCLA Medical Center. Her article “Take One Dog and Call Me in the Morning” appeared in the 2008 May/June issue of Awareness magazine. She offers bereavement counseling for pet loss, in private & group settings as well as “The Canine Connection,” a problem-solving approach to finding stability in your relationship with your dog.
To reach Marian, email firstname.lastname@example.org