During what is likely the most pressing issue of the modern world, the stress is mounting for those who are working or learning from home, are working in essential positions, and those who have lost their jobs.
One of the best ways we have been told to cope with this stress is by maintaining a connection with loved ones and friends, but for some, that’s easier said than done, so they turn to man’s best friend for comfort. But what about those that went into quarantine with a pet, and won’t come out with one, how are they supposed to cope with the stress of a pandemic on top of the loss of their best friend?
Unfortunately for myself, but fortunately for those seeking the answer to these questions, I lost my dog, Chuckles, yes that’s his name, on April 1st. I found out he had pancreatic cancer just a day before my last day of school before spring break, which would turn out to be my last day of traditional learning this year.
My family and I battled seizures, blood sugar crashes, and having to feed him every two hours to prevent these things for three weeks. Soon he made it clear that he was ready to go, and we had to come to terms with the fact that we were forcing him to stay alive for our own sake.
The first step in grieving a pet is to recognize that while your grief will be different than when you lose a family member or friend, it is no less important. Our society today does not treat the death of a pet the same as the death of a person, and for that reason we feel we should brush our grief aside because “at least it wasn’t a family member.”
We don’t ask or receive time off of work to grieve because it is a general belief that the loss of a pet is not as painful as the loss of a family member. However, according to the article Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously from Scientific American, people have expressed similar symptoms to a heart attack in the weeks following the death of a beloved pet, referred to more commonly as “broken heart syndrome.” This happens when the response is so severe the person’s body simply cannot cope, and the likelihood of something like this happening increases when we are not allowed to grieve in a healthy manner.
The reason for a general lack of acknowledgment when it comes to pet grief is most likely due to the fact that “many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a pet dies,” according to the same article from Scientific American, “and studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from the grief of all kinds.”
So, the first step after the initial shock of the loss should be to acknowledge the fact that your grief should not be overlooked or pushed aside, however, this takes a level of emotional maturity needed to allow yourself to feel the pain in its fullest.
During this time when we are more disconnected than ever, losing a pet can leaving you feeling emotionally isolated as well, making the process of grieving and dealing with your new reality even more important. Taking care of our mental health has been a mantra of experts giving advice to those stuck at home, and the loss of a pet could seriously jeopardize that. So if you don’t have the ability to reach out to friends and family, please consider a grief counselor to help guide you through your process.
There are also several downloadable apps available for those in grief or struggling with mental health including MyGrief, Good Grief (a social network of people in similar situations), and Healing After Death.
The American Veterinary Medical Association provides six steps in grieving for a pet, and they are as follows:
Acknowledge the reality of the death
Acknowledging the full reality of your loss may take weeks or months, but will be done in a time that is right for you. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there.
Move toward the pain of the loss
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is difficult, but important, need. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore it.
Continue your relationship through memories
Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together.
Adjust your self-identity
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet. You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning.
Search for meaning
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of pets in your life. Coming to terms with these questions is another need you must meet during your grief journey. Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important.
Receive support from others
You need the love and support of others because you never “get over” grief. Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.
It is important to note that these steps may not fall in the same order for everyone, or they may not happen at all. Grieving is a personal experience and you should not try to force yourself into cookie-cutter five-step grieving programs. If you are having trouble handling your grief, the best thing you can do is talk to someone you know will support you or to a counselor.
Losing a pet can feel worse than losing a person in many cases because we miss the intense bond that was forged without a common language and the unconditional support in every situation. So please, if anything, allow yourself to feel the pain, while this pain is the hardest part of the process, it is the healthy thing to do.
In my case, I tried to convince myself that Chuckles didn’t deserve my grief, he only deserved to be remembered happily, and I tried very hard to suppress my sadness because I told myself he wouldn’t want me to cry over him. But it all boils down to the fact that now, almost two months after his death, I’m dealing with the anger and the sadness that has built up for too long, and it’s much harder to cope with.
When your mind and heart are ready, you will be able to remember your pet fondly, and laugh about the happy memories, but you shouldn’t force yourself trying to reach the point of acceptance. Make sure you give yourself the support you need and reach out to those around you, and don’t let others belittle your sadness.