‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch – Yehuda HaLevi
I remember all too well the day that I had to euthanize my dog. She was too sick and in too much pain for me to comfort her and there was no way that I could make her understand why she was so miserable. Why we weren’t able to go for a run? Why she couldn’t eat her food? She looked at me with such distress and I knew that it was time for me to act on her behalf one last time. Such heartache and emptiness and so many tears shed for the dear, sweet friend I was losing.
The death of a beloved pet is a significant and traumatic event. Even the contemplation of that loss can be enough to bring some people to tears. We knit our pets into the fabric of our lives, giving them a place in our homes and certainly in our hearts. They become our confidants, our companions and our co-conspirators and we take great comfort in their presence whether it be a face in the window, welcoming us home from work or a lump at the foot of the bed. When a pet dies it is natural to revisit other losses we have experienced and also to contemplate our own mortality. So what can we do when the death of a pet turns our world upside down?
First and foremost, don’t rush to replace the animal you have lost. Well-intentioned friends may suggest that you dash over to your local shelter and get another pet ASAP, but in my opinion, this advice is misguided especially when there are children involved. You all had a long-term relationship with your pet and in some cases, you may have spent a fair amount of time caring for an ill or declining elder animal. Take time to grieve, to recover your own energy and tend to your peace of mind.
Second, recognize that to be feeling so sad is a sign that we have loved deeply. For some people, human relationships are intimidating and problematic and loving a pet allows us to be both vulnerable and generous in manageable doses. It is right and good to be impacted by these little lives and to grieve when they are lost.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. It is really very hard to have a pet die whether by accident, illness or merciful intervention. The grieving process may be lengthy, but it will usually ebb and flow as time passes until we eventually remember our pet’s life with us more than we remember its death. If you find that grieving is preventing you from functioning in the world or enjoying other aspects of your life you may need to seek the help of a therapist to understand the meaning behind the loss you have suffered and learn how to return to baseline.
As I wait for a new dog to join my household, I am reminded of the many things that I learned from loving pets (and people) through the years. As in all relationships, the key is to maintain a sense of humor and appreciate life each and every day. Oh, and keep a healthy supply of stain remover and paper towels on hand for the messes…