Hardly a week goes by that I don’t learn of the loss of a friend, family member or neighbor’s beloved pet. And of course, there are the dreaded times in my own life when grief comes calling. Over the past several months in this blog we’ve written about many different species and experiences, and occasionally the mention of a pet who is no longer with us surfaces, but to date we have not tackled head on the subject of grieving a pet. Granted, grief is not the most charming or cheerful of subjects, but that’s part of my inspiration for writing about it. Grief doesn’t have to be avoided at all costs, feared, or debilitating. Grief can be (and actually is) the mechanism for finding peace when you’ve lost someone you love.
A friend recently told me that grief is what heals us. Or as she so eloquently put it, grief breaks us and remakes us. When I remember the pets I’ve lost, while I do feel a lingering sadness, I find it transforms into happy memories and the feeling of gratefulness that those beings were in my life. In addition to just plain old remembering, I find old photos comforting, and nowadays the large volume of videos that are accessed in the palm of my hand bring great joy upon re-viewing.
As with our human loved ones, people take many different approaches to honoring their pets. Some pets are buried in back yards or in forests or far flung meadows. Many people preserve pet ashes, either scattering them or keeping them close by. I have a pet memorial garden in my back yard where no one is buried, but everyone has a commemorative stone. It’s not fancy (and during a drought it appears particularly spare) but it’s a place where I can go and remember not only the pets Dave and I have lost, but the friends we lost along the way. Our collection of stones began to include the stones for friends’ pets we cared for or stones we inherited. So, one side of our memorial garden is for friends and the other side for family. We miss our friends’ pets, too.
As for ashes, it’s embarrassing to admit that my boxed collection grew so large that while sheltering in place last year I became disturbed by the amount of shelf space the boxes took up in my office. I blame Zoom. Normally, my view in my office is of the wall in front of me with its cheerful paintings. Too much Zoom time will remind you what the rest of your office looks like. My office had a morbid number of boxes containing ashes (some of them human – that’s an entirely different blog for an entirely different audience). Fearing the things my children would say about me should they find themselves cleaning out my possessions (also another blog for another website!) I set about to “tidy up.” Since I had some succulents I wanted to plant in the garden – my drought era yard redecorating project – I decided to mix ashes in with the potting soil and cover it all with cocoa mulch. Now the ashes and accompanying memorial stones are in close proximity.
Some people feel an immediate need to purge their pet’s artifacts like beds, bowls or toys. Others like to recycle those items and take comfort in knowing those items still have use. Some find it comforting to erect small alters in their homes, or keep more pictures visible. Each and every approach and ritual is valid. And everyone’s acute grief periods are unique; everyone’s feelings about bringing a new pet into the family differ. Many friends have told me, “I don’t think I’ll get another dog. I just can’t go through this pain again.” Some start looking the next day for a love to fill the void. My own feelings and approaches are dictated by my experience of being dogless for 17 years.
I grew up with dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, fish, turtles and guinea pigs. But mostly dogs. I even had a dog when I was in college in Boston. When I moved to California for graduate school she made the move with me. It took me a week of searching 10 hours a day, but I found us housing and she lived with me until her passing at the assumed age of 13 or so. She was the best dog I ever knew. Her name was Hilda and I mourn her still. After Hilda died I was embarking on a career that would keep me away from home for long hours and later out of town, sometimes for weeks. I had a wonderful cat during those years – Ripley – but I didn’t get another dog as long as my career took center stage. I did warn my husband when he proposed that the day would come when I’d quit that crazy life and get a dog. And I did.
Since that time twenty years ago, we’ve only been dog-less for three months and cat-less for less than a year. We’ve seen both species come and go and have deeply mourned their losses. We have been blessed with very long lived cats, with one exception. We don’t make an effort to find new loves, but somehow they find us. As painful as it is for me to lose a beloved pet, I find it more painful to live without a beloved pet. The pets we have now mingle with the memories of those that came before them. We love talking about the ones who are gone and comparing their antics to the ones we live with now. In the case of our Chihuahua mix, Maybelline (who usurped Hilda’s claim to “best dog ever”), our current Poodle, Claude, was actually friends with her. Claude lived with my friend Patty who passed away two years ago. So Claude came to live with us. He had spent a lot of time with us prior to that as Patty loved to travel before her illness took hold and would globe trot for a month at a time. I love my photos of Claude and Maybelline together; they are like a chemical binder for the love I feel for them both.
Another issue you might face with the loss of your pet is that you might have other pets with whom the deceased pet was very bonded. It’s comforting to share that loss with your surviving pet(s), but helping your grieving pet can sometimes dilute your own feelings. Or rather, you put your feelings aside in order to care for your companion. It’s good to find ways for you to grieve together.
One of the most difficult things about losing a pet is that not everyone you tell feels the same way you do about the loss. For you, it’s the loss of a family member, but for some observers “it was a cat.” That’s why it’s important to share your loss with those you know to have similar relationships with pets, or at least those with like-minded sympathies. For some, the safe spaces where talking about your feelings of loss and grief in a group setting are beneficial. Marin Humane provides links to grief support and of course google searches will also put you in touch with similar resources.
Whether you’ve lost a pet recently or it’s been many years since your last devastating loss, chances are you teared up once or maybe twice reading this. Humans are not the only species that shed tears, but we may be the most open and frequent criers of all our brethren. That catharsis, along with leaning into and embracing your sadness, is actually the very balm of healing. If you’re feeling alone, find a support group or a friend who will share and hold your sadness with you. And bask in the glow of the spirit of the pet(s) you lost. They are still with you.