Good-bye Still Means, “I Love You”

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The unthinkable has happened and you must face one of life’s most painful events: the death of a loved one. You’re not saying goodbye to a parent or a sibling, but your cat, dog, bunny or even bearded dragon. It doesn’t matter whether the passing was the result of a long illness or an accident, you’re suffering unspeakable pain.

Pets provide companionship, solace, security, consistency and most of all, unconditional love. They don’t hold grudges or get drunk; they don’t nag, join gangs or suffer mid-life crises. Relationships with family and friends may drift apart, whereas the bond with a pet tends to grow stronger over time. Therefore, pet loss can be just as agonizing and traumatic as the passing of a two-legged family member.

People may not realize that the death of a pet extends far beyond the loss of companionship. There’s a loss of structure in your life. He’d been part of your everyday routine. His passing leaves an obvious hole. You’re reminded of his absence when you return from work. The cat isn’t waiting to be fed; the dog doesn’t need to be walked. Even shopping can become a tearful experience when taking an unnecessary stroll down the pet food aisle.

There are many things you can do to bring closure. If the death was sudden, such as an accident, then viewing the body before burial might help you accept the death. If your children would like to see the remains, don’t deprive them of it. Kids have to heal, too.

On the other hand, if you’re facing putting your pet to sleep after a long illness, spend time her in the days and weeks leading up to the inevitable. You may want to be with her during the euthanasia, or not. If you wish to be present, don’t let the vet dissuade. If you are a person of faith, ask your pastor to join you at the veterinarian’s office to offer prayer and consolation.

The sadness that follows is a natural part of the healing process; don’t brush it aside. Although duration varies from person to person, working through the grieving process could take months. If your sadness or depression continues for what you believe is too long, speak with a professional counselor.

You will go through a number of phases before coming to terms with the death. Denial, the first stage, is exactly that. “Are you sure?” are the most common words blurted out of an owner’s mouth when the veterinarian shares the prognosis. “Maybe the tests were mixed up at the lab.” “Not my Tiger!” “I want a second opinion.”

Anger usually follows. It has to be someone’s fault. “Why couldn’t the vet save my dog?” “That stupid so-and-so ran over my Tabby.” “She left the cage door open.” That anger can even be aimed at the pet, himself.

Then, anger is turned inwardly in the form of guilt. “I shouldn’t have gone on vacation.”

Finally, there is acceptance and resolution. Pain is pushed into your subconscious. You can begin to recall fond memories of your time together. You can look at pictures of your cat and laugh at the time your daughter helped give Smokey his first bath (or did Smokey bathe her,) or the way your dog cared for that litter of baby bunnies.

People need to be able to talk about their feelings and vent that volcano of frustration, guilt and anger. Seek out a friend with a sympathetic ear. Even if you feel you can’t confide in those near you, you don’t have to suffer alone. There are free resources to help see you through your loss. Many large shelters hold pet loss meetings. Vet schools often provide free telephone counseling.

When faced with this painful situation, (and everyone who loves an animal eventually will) give the grieving process time to work. When the time is right, and you’ll know when it is, you may want to adopt a new friend. Allow something wonderful to come from your loss. Adopting from an animal from a shelter will save a life, literally life from death. Of course your new pet will never replace the one you lost, but he will help fill the void. In time, he will grow as dear to you as the pet you lost, but in his own special way.

Free Pet Loss Help Lines

  • Iams Pet Loss Center 888-332-7738 M-Sat 9 am-6 pm EST
  • ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline 24 hour 877-474-3310
  • Animal Medical Center, New York-212-838-8100 (free support group meets every other Tuesday)
  • University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia-215-898- 5000 x2385785 (ask for the grief counselor)
  • University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine at St. Paul (8-4:30 CST weekdays) Social Work Services 612-624-9372
About the Author

Dusty Rainbolt, ACCBC is AdoptAShelter.com's editor-in-chief. She is past president of the Cat Writers' Association. With three decades of animal rescue under her collar, Dusty has rescued and rehomed over 1500 cats. She's author of Kittens for Dummies and Cat Wrangling Made Easy. Her new paranormal mystery, Death Under Crescent Moon, can be purchased to benefit your favorite AdoptAShelter.com charity at Amazon.com.