Pets, People, Death, and Grief

(I’ve composed this post — in my mind — dozens of times since February, but couldn’t bring myself to word it while my 13-year-old dog’s kidneys were failing. She rallied for a miraculous while, but this week her energy and appetite declined. For her sake, I had to let her go. Now that she’s gone, I can’t not put it into words.)  

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

If your friend lost a beloved pet (or person), remember that grief is the body’s natural (though awful!) response to losing someone with an emotional connection.

  1. Pets are not people,
    but
  2. Pets are people, too.

Huh? Didn’t I just contradict myself? Yes.

And no.

Pets are not people. Their bodies have different biological rhythms, their life spans (for most species) will run out long before their humans’ lives do, and they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

Kind of like children. Their bodies have developing biological rhythms that differ from those of their parents (think of newborn sleeping, eating, and um, diapering needs), their life spans (with tragic exceptions) will outlast their parents’ lives,  and for years they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

As we care for our pets, our children, our elderly relatives, our spouses, and our family-by-choice friends (whose bonds of kinship in some cases exceed those crafted in blood or in law), we join our hearts, minds, and extremities (hands, paws, wingtips, scales, fins …) with theirs.

We and they become family. We serve them, they serve us. We love them.

And when they leave us, they take that joined part of our hearts, our minds, and even the feelings of our extremities with them.

We mourn them.

As with other losses we’ve experienced, we can draw upon our own pain to help us better understand those who are mourning. But we must never, ever compare our losses or one-up “my grief is harder than your grief.” Ever.

I’m mourning my dog. Every part of my house and every part of my day reminds me of her absence. It HURTS. But as much as I love and miss her, this grief is not the same grief I felt after my husband’s death or my mother’s. It’s a different, less intense grief.

And yes, each “new” grief brings back a degree of the shock and the pain of each “old” source of bereavement.

Several people who dearly, deeply love their pets made comments they intended to help (but that did the opposite). When I needed to express my grief over the man who fathered my children, I didn’t appreciate hearing anyone say they “knew” how I felt because they’d had to put down a sick dog once several years earlier or they were dreading “going through” what I was experiencing when the inevitable happened to their pets.

My daughters didn’t appreciate similar comments comparing their dad’s death to the passing of friends’ cats, either. I don’t mean to imply that the loss of a pet is insignificant, because it does matter. When you learn a friend’s beloved fur baby has passed, by all means, speak up and share your condolences! (“I’m sorry about Flipper. She was a good goldfish.”)

But don’t rush in to judge or suggest courses of “replacement” — and this applies to the loss of  a person as well. (Do NOT ask whether — or when — they’re going to get another dog, cat, spouse, or child. Do NOT ask how soon they will start visiting animal shelters, dating, or “trying again” for another baby!)

Comparing losses or rushing to “replace” those we’ve loved doesn’t work. Think of it like this: Would it be better to lose your dominant hand or one of your legs? Which of your senses would you choose to lose? Who would you prefer to mourn when death steps into your circle of loved ones?

All loss hurts. All grief has to be worked through.

Let your friends know that you know they are hurting. (“I’m sorry about Donatello. I know you’re going to miss that sweet, stubborn donkey.”)

Be there with them. Bring tissues or chocolate or music or whatever your friends will find soothing.

Share your memories of their beloved. (“Remember the time Bunny chased that obnoxious salesman away? Good ole rabbit…”

Send word. Drop a line of text, a Facebook comment, an email, or (gasp!) an actual note or letter. They’ll be appreciated.

Many of my kind human friends have already done that for me. I thank you. You are amazing, and your compassion has brought sweetness into my saddened heart as I mourn my beloved, ever-faithful fur friend.

___
Helping Your Child When the Family Pet Dies” by the ASPCA includes some validating suggestions and further links at the bottom of its page.

 

People Aren’t Interchangeable (and Neither Are Their Pets)

Loved ones can’t be replaced. So please don’t suggest otherwise.

Loved ones can't be replaced, so don't suggest otherwise.

An empty blanket, an empty collar, and an empty ring: Loved ones can’t be replaced, so don’t suggest otherwise.

When people (or pets) expire, mourners can’t scoop up “bargain-priced offspring” from the children’s department; they won’t rush to the store and click a collar around a “brand new best friend” package in the pet aisle; they shouldn’t be driven to the mall for sniffing and squeezing current models in order to select a “ripe new spouse” from the potential mates display window. (At least, for most people it doesn’t work that way…)

Forgive me, please, if it sounds as if I’m making light of the seriousness of death. My intent is to point out the ridiculous assumptions made by well-meaning people who treat the bereaved in this foolish way.

For example, the first variation I heard on “You’re young. You can marry again” was less than 48 hours after my husband’s death. It was an (arguably misguided) attempt to assure me I need not feel lifelong devastation and solitude. But deep as I was in that personal place of raw, recent loss,  life as I knew it had already immersed me in devastation and loneliness.

I could no more have “replaced” my late husband while thus submerged (nor contemplated the idea of it) than I could have inhaled deeply from the bottom of a full swimming pool.

For those who mourn the death of a child, there’s nothing assuring in the agony-increasing comments of those who try to “comfort” them by promises of possible future children. Doing so ignores the life-altering, soul-searing loss of THAT precious, beloved child.

Pet owners face their own grief at the passing of beloved companions. Well-meaning friends might suggest it’s “only a pet” or “you can always get another one,” but the bonds between pet owners and their furry (or feathered or scaly) friends are as unique — and can run as deep as — friendships (and deeper than some kinships) between members of the same species.

More helpful than such “reassurances” of suggested “replacements” are acknowledgements of the loss. Offer comments like:

  • He was such a ____ [kind, thoughtful, funny, interesting…] soul. I’ll miss him, too.
  • I’m so sorry about the death of your ____ [child, parent, friend, sibling…]. I know you’re hurting.
  • Fluffy was a good ____ [cat, dog, hamster, sugar glider…]. She’ll be missed.

In time, grieving parents might have another child; bereaved animal lovers might adopt other pets; mourning widows (or widowers) might date and perhaps even marry again. But they might not. There may be reasons they cannot, reasons that are no one’s business but their own.

In the distant future, even if the mourning parent welcomes another child, even if the grieving owner takes in another pet, even if the bereaved widow(er) finds a second soul mate, each newly loved one finds his or her OWN place within the healing heart once broken by the death of the deceased.

Remember: Beloved souls aren’t interchangeable — even within species. You can’t remove one from a person’s life and simply plop another into the deceased one’s place.

Tell the Bereaved, “I’m Thinking about You.”

First, say something. Anything. Acknowledge that you know the loss occurred.

Six months after my husband’s death, I finally came face to face with one neighbor I’d previously spoken with on a regular basis. I’d been hurt that neither spouse had spoken to me since that awful night. Deciding it was time to take the initiative for myself, the next time I saw one of them, I called out a friendly greeting.

“Hey, good morning!” You’d think I’d done something hideous, so flustered was my neighbor. Before the poor soul could recompose and skedaddle, I added, “I’m not sure if you heard about Bill …” (though I already knew that no one in the neighborhood had missed the ambulance coming and going that night).

My neighbor’s head bowed and nodded, as if in deep prayer, though the sheepish, muffled reply probably indicated shame rather than piety. In a few awkward sentences I learned that yes, they’d heard and yes, they were both very, very sorry. They’d wanted to come see me, but neither had known what to say so they’d actively avoided me (Ha! I was right!) so they wouldn’t face that discomfort. That was followed by a promise to come over “soon.”

Two and a half years later, they’ve yet to visit. Since that awkward talk, now they at least wave and return friendly “hellos” in passing, and I’m okay with that.

Second, tell the bereaved person HOW you’re thinking about him or her. Depending on your relationship to the one mourning the loss, here are some “starter ideas” you may wish to try:

  • I’m keeping you in my prayers. (good)
  • I’m keeping you in my prayers each time I pray. (better)
  • I’m sending positive thoughts your way. (good)
  • I’m sending positive thoughts your way each time I meditate [first thing every morning, every night before bedtime, etc.]. (better)
  • I know you miss your [partner, parent, sibling, pet, …]. (good)
  • I know you miss your [same as above]. If you’d like to talk about [same], I’d love to listen. (better)

The most important thing is to SAY SOMETHING to acknowledge the loss. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s not too late! A thoughtful expression of kindness is always welcome.