There is a myth that grief only happens after loss, but we start anticipating the end of something we love far before we lose the beloved. In the case of loving animals, if we’re lucky enough to have even a little bit of warning about the upcoming end, we start grieving as soon as we’re in touch with the possibility of losing our animal friend. In fact, we humans are neurologically wired, through our “attachment system”, to anticipate and react to the loss of anything that is vital to our wellbeing. It is the same attachment system that brings us close to each other. The unkindest thing we can do to ourselves is chastise ourselves for this most natural response to loving someone deeply.
Some people wonder why they are so upset when they find out that their pet is facing a serious illness. They are surprised to find themselves unsettled at the specialist’s office and at the pharmacy. They feel embarrassed when they start crying a little in the lunchroom, while talking about how their dear friend is doing. The words I utter the most, as a therapist for people grieving their ill or dying pets are “Of course you are sad; you love your pet. “
It is not uncommon to experience:
- trouble sleeping
- hyper-vigilance related to your pets’ behavior
- mood swings
- obsessive thoughts about the future and guilt about past decisions
- irritability and reactivity
- worry about money
- confusion, forgetfulness and disorganization
Here are just a few things you can do to support yourself as you support your pet:
- Strive for sleep, nutrition and connection to others.
- Get as much information as you can about your pet’s condition. The first best resource is your veterinarian. Write down all your questions and the answers too. When we’re flustered, it’s hard to remember all the details.
- Find knowledgeable people who may have experienced your pet’s condition and who are able to share their experiences with you.
- Join a support group online or in person. See our schedule for dates/times of our groups.
- Write about your sweet pet friend. Go through photos of their life. Make a time to talk with friends about your pet’s story.
- Create a private Facebook group that’s just for you. This is ideal for late night ruminations, comfort and reassurance.
- Stick to your routine with your pet, if you can, including walks or other activities, as indicated.
- Even as you notice that your pet’s behavior or appearance are changing, your pet is still in there. Your loving presence is all they need to be content.
- Take in each day with your pet. Each moment may be tinged with sadness, but each moment also may have potential for a deeper connection with your pet.
Companioning a pet through ill health and death is a unique, and often life changing, experience. When we are able, if we tune in to our pet, we are likely to feel closer and more connected than we ever have before, even when we are sad beyond words. You can do this.