We are exploring the unconditional love we share with our pets and the emptiness we feel with the loss of a pet. It can be so devastatingly sad. We’ve all had grief at some point in our lives. While we realize it’s a natural feeling, the death of a cherished pet appears to strike us quite hard. I hope that the ideas I provide will assist you in overcoming your sorrow and ease the grieving process.
Beloved pets fetch unconditional love.
Unconditional love remains constant no matter what conditions are presented. When we have a pet, love grows unique interactions that solidify that human-animal bond. The bond which we each share with our beloved pets.
A pet’s trust and their love begins with dependable care that meets all of their needs. This care should be administered with enthusiasm and a kind attitude. When they sense that they’re being treated kindly through our attitude, our words and tone, their bond with us grows. They express their love for us by following us around everywhere we go. We can see joy in their eyes, their wagging tails, little licks, and even jumping.
Cats and other animals also have their way of expressing love and joy at seeing us. In general, our pets are sensitive and “intuitive”. This enables them to pick up on our demeanor, our mood, and even when there’s a health issue. They are very protective of us and to warn us of pending “danger” and thus defend us by barking.
Pets are Our Family
Love is unrivaled in its ability to touch our hearts. It reaches the very core of our beings. Love knows no boundaries, and falling in love with a pet is no exception. We become our pets family for them. Years later we become a true animal companion, demonstrating unswerving devotion and protection.
Dogs and cats are both incredibly loving and supportive, providing us with a lot of love and emotional support. We give affection to them, which comforts them while also soothing us. It even lowers our blood pressure and reduces stress hormones. They take dogs to nursing homes because the elderly residents’ feelings shift to a sense of calm, just by petting them.
Pets help us experience unconditional love
Pets bring solace to our lives, a sense of peace, well-being, and contentment at any age. They give us something to care about and nurture. Pets teach us about kindness, humility, and care. They “earn” their way into our hearts by giving us “unconditional love”. The years together fly by quickly. You become so enmeshed in them, hence when your pet dies, you feel devastated. There are no words to describe the depth of that loss.
Those of us who have pets experience the benefits of having an animal to love. They don’t judge you for who you are, they don’t care how old you are or what you do in life. All they care about is spending time with you.
You get to grow together with a human-animal/animal-human bond that you learn to treasure forever. Getting a pet can be one of the most exciting experiences ever. As a child you get to care about something that moves and breathes, other than a stuffed animal. The pet becomes your companion, your friend, your buddy.
Our First Pet Death Experience: Do you ever get over losing a pet?
As children growing up, we may have received a pet from our parents to take care of it on our own. Receiving our first pet as a child is an unforgettable experience, even if it’s a fish. You may well remember being so excited, coming home with a plastic bag filled with water and a cute little goldfish swimming in the middle. Then your parents get a fishbowl and some fish food, and you train your fish to be in that fishbowl. Then one day you come home and see the fish floating on top of the water. You’re shattered to realize that your fish is DEAD!
Parents teach you about life spans and the death of pets and are supportive by helping you create a small ritual to have closure. By “burying” the fish in a little box and saying “goodbye” once the fish is buried. This was most likely your first pet death experience. Different people handle death differently, of course. However, the ritual of closure is of respect, and expression of love in sending them off to their forever place of sleep. Rituals become an important part of healing from our loss.
Later you may visit a shelter with your parents, where adorable puppies and kittens are available for adoption. You immediately fall in love and beg your parents to adopt a dog. You WANT that furry friend no matter what!
Why is the death of a pet so hard?
No matter what type it can be extremely upsetting when they die extremely upsetting. It feels like a big part of your world has ended. The loss of a pet leaves us with immense agony and devastation in our hearts. It takes quite a bit of time to recover, and sometimes we find recovery hard and challenging. Every time you eat, you remember giving a little morsel from your plate, and these memories can be overwhelming.
Life is fragile and none of us knows when that life will end. We could have all the time in the world, it seems, and in one moment we lose our friend. It is the natural order of things that all living beings shall eventually die.
It’s the way life is designed and knowing this intellectually, is different from experiencing it. Creating something special in terms of a ritual with friends and family members helps with achieving closure. It eases the sorrow felt by the loss of a pet. It also brings a sense of honor and regard to the difficult experience of loss. We create personalized rituals to honor the death of our beloved pet, as we do with a beloved human being of ours.
The Pain and Loss of a Pet Loved So Deeply
Experiencing a pet’s death is never easy, and the grieving process is different for everyone. There is no right or wrong amount of time you grieve after your pet dies, nor in how you express your grief. Your pet’s death is a very personal experience. It’s important to be aware that you need some extra support through the grieving process.
Grieving the loss of a pet is a huge topic. There are pet bereavement support groups and counselors (sometimes known as pet loss counselors) for grieving pet owners. They are certified and trained to help you navigate through the grief.
In the last few years, two of my friends lost their dogs. Olivia Bareham, from Sacred Crossings, had a golden retriever for many years, named Otis. Otis was very sick and his health was declining rapidly. When it was time for Otis to be given the final injections, I was there with Olivia.
I felt privileged to be with her, and Otis, during his last moments of life. She called an end-of-life palliative care and oncology service that came to the house and offered euthanasia in the comfort of her own home. It was one of the most touching experiences one could ever witness.
There was so much love in the room, you could feel it everywhere. The veterinarian and a death midwife waited patiently as Olivia held him in her arms. Oscar gently let go of his last breath on his own.
Recovering from emotional whiplash
Another friend of mine, Pina De Rosa, lost her dog Wellington, an 80-pound doodle. He was more than just her pet, he was her companion animal, her best friend, and her buddy. He was also the spokes-dog for a TEDx Wilmington talk that they gave together. It was about amazing cancer sniffing dogs, shedding light on how dogs can detect cancer EARLIER, and with greater accuracy than ANY medical equipment.
Wellington was diagnosed with rare cancer lodged inside his heart. Pina took him for palliative treatment, and while he was in the back having radiation, his heart suddenly stopped, and she was not able to say goodbye. Recovering from that emotional whiplash, she contacted several bereavement counselors. Along with her healing process, she took the training to become a certified pet bereavement counselor herself.
Wellington became the impetus for a philanthropic legacy called, Treats for Pups, (#missionWellington) where Pina puts together “doggie bags” consisting of pet food, blankets, and supplies that she gifts to the pets living on the streets. I have one in my car, ready to give away when I see a homeless person with a dog.
Along Came Handsome
Several months later, Pina went to a pet shelter to find a senior foster dog. She spotted “Handsome”, and was told she couldn’t foster him, because he was terminal, so she decided to adopt him. They told her Handsome had one to two weeks to live but he lived another four and a half months because of the love.
As a grieving pet owner, she has been able to experience healing she didn’t get to have with Wellington. By taking the bereavement training and becoming a certified pet bereavement counselor with the APLB, she helps others through their grieving process and says it has been a very rewarding experience.
…and Then There was Mini Wellington
To her surprise, another doodle popped up, whom she named Mini Wellington (Welly) who now carries on the Mission Wellington philanthropic legacy of Treats for Pups. He wanted all of Pina’s attention because he was also a “toddler”, on the opposite side of the life spectrum, and has been with Handsome this entire time.
As Handsome’s cancer advanced beyond the point of no return, on Sunday, September 9th, 2018, I was privileged to accompany Pina, Handsome, and Mini Welly to the Southern California Veterinary Hospital & Animal Skin Clinic, along with two other “Fairy Godmothers,” as Pina described us. As he gently drifted off, after he was given the medicine that enabled him to transition with a sense of peace and grace.
The experience was touching, sad, and filled with love and compassion. We all said our goodbyes to him. Kathy, a Buddhist friend of Pina’s, brought him through a beautiful ritual.
Afterward, Kathy and Pina took him to Scott & Teresa Summerville’s, At Garden’s Edge, pet cremation and aftercare service in Alhambra, CA. Scott and Teresa are both avid animal lovers, pet rescuers, and caregivers. They understand how difficult it is to lose a beloved pet and they provide an almost indescribable service.
Caring for your pet after death is an important part of your healing
Scott is a gentle giant who exudes love for pets and cares for his clients’ pets like none other. He has a little area in their facility that is painted with angels, children, and animals. He gently lays your deceased animal on a cart that can be wheeled around. Classical music is playing, and some lovely incense is burned. Then you are left alone in the room with your pet for as much time as you need until you feel closure with your beloved pet.
Having a unique place that can provide exquisite and private comfort for your beloved pet is very important. Scott and Teresa are individuals whom you can rely on to facilitate and promote honoring your pet with dignity and respect. They provide their clients with calming reassurance and peace of mind throughout their difficult times.
Picking a caring cremation facility really helps
Their services are for a “Private” cremation of your pet. “Private” means that they cremate one pet at a time. They do a cleansing ritual, carefully placing your pet in a wicker basket in a refrigerated area, preparing your pet’s body with great care, using lavender sprays, and then cremating your pet in the blanket.
Coming from the perspective of an end-of-life educator/trainer and death midwife, I saw Pina transform the private pain and guilt she felt when she couldn’t be with Wellington, and pour her love into Handsome’s transition, ensuring his end would be honored more meaningfully.
She was adamant that Handsome would have a passing filled with love and regard that he could feel. Her ability to give him exquisite end-of-life care allowed Handsome to somehow “know” how much he mattered. He was loved in life and he understood Pina, honored his life, and gave him the utmost dignity, holding him in regard in his last days.
Creating your own “goodbye” ritual honors your pet’s life
As I mentioned earlier, you can create your own “goodbye” ritual for your pet in a manner that means something special to you. Euthanasia alleviate prolonged suffering for the animal when there is nothing more than can be done medically. The time and place for euthanasia can be created into a ritual of prayer, candle lighting, or with burying your pet’s favorite toy or bone.
You may opt for cremation and either keep the ashes in an urn, bury them somewhere allowed, or even release them in the ocean or river. Dog cemeteries exist pretty much in all the big cities. Laying a stone on top with the dates etched is also done. These flexible options allow for the creation of a ceremony that is intimate and meaningful.
Pet Grief and the Grieving Process
Once the ritual and the “goodbye” has taken place, time seems to stand still when you are home and you feel the house empty. You may find yourself not even wanting to pick up their toys, their bowl, their bed, or anything that belonged to them.
You grieve – time and support will help, but it will never release the memory of profound love. The pain you feel when missing them is directly correlated to how much you love them. If you allow yourself to understand this, the hurt will ease.
Let’s take a small step back to understand a bit more about grief and the grieving process. Grieving is very important and a natural reaction to losing someone you loved or a beloved pet. Grief occurs as a result of love. That’s part of what it means to be human. Loving deeply is the greatest gift of all, and because you can love deeply, you feel a deep pain in your heart that can sometimes feel overwhelming, but, the good thing is, is that the love you felt in the first place, is the same love that will also help you heal the hurt from when a pet dies. This is the essence of healing.
Grieving Through the five Stages of Dying
In my article, Grieving Through the Five Stages of Dying,we talk about how people approach impending death. It is no different from an animal that you love. If your pet is sick, you may find yourself going through these various stages of grief yourself: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Of course, you don’t want to accept the fact that your dog or cat or pet is going to die or has died. Of course, you don’t want their life to end.
The pain of even thinking about it can be overwhelming. The sadness penetrates deeply into one’s soul and even the word, euthanasia, may be horrifying, but at the same time, to see your beloved pet suffer could be unbearable and inhumane. Euthanasia is intended to relieve your pet of the pain he/she is experiencing. We want the best for them and when an animal is suffering, euthanasia may be the kindest gesture we could give them.
Dr. Alice Villalobos, one of the premier veterinary specialists and author of Canine and Feline Geriatric Oncology, Honoring the Human Animal Bond developed a universal scale, called the “HHHHHMM Scale (Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility, More Good Days than Bad) indicating what stage your pet is in to help you determine when to make the decision, which is the most difficult decision a pet owner will have to make.
How to balance your emotional approach with your pet’s suffering
It helps to make the call when the emotion is out of the equation and your decision is not guided by the emotions of the day, but by the pet’s circumstances and condition. She says it’s the disease that’s killing the animal and it’s the euthanasia that is saving them from the pain and suffering.
Each criterion has a point value of 0-10, with a possible total of 70 points and if the vet sees that your pet has a 35 or above, your pet is still good to go. When it is below 35, it is time to consider euthanasia.
Trusting your instincts and sense of your pet is also important since you know him/her the best. Dr. Wallace Sife, psychologist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (https://www.aplb.org), is another expert on the subject of grieving a pet. He wrote a guide called the Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving, which has become one of the premier pet guides.
As a pet grief counselor, Pina De Rosa likes to suggest, “Write a two-part letter to ease the grieving process. In the first part, you write to your deceased pet, thanking them for everything they were to you, how much you loved them and still do. This letter can be kept going as the grieving process continues. It’s not something you need to do every day. The second letter is from the pet to you after they pass. You listen to what that sweet soul is telling you. This approach can be healing, soothing, and bonding experiences.
…Keeping the memory Alive
Focusing on the good that your pet’s life has brought to you and how you may commemorate them is an active approach to keeping their memory alive. Just living in your heart is sometimes not enough. Chat rooms, like Pet Loss Chat at (https://rainbowsbridge.com) or The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement Chat Room, (https://www.aplb.org/chat-room/) are a couple of places where people can go and receive the support they need about the pets they have lost.
As time goes on, the possibility opens that life with another pet can become your way of healing to nurture, and love again.
When we lose somebody we love, it’s never easy because of how much we care for them. The same goes for when we lose a pet. They leave an impression on our hearts that will remain for eternity, and when they pass away, grieving is a healing process that comforts and mends our broken hearts.
Grieving has no set duration; it is unique to each person. Whether we are children, teenagers, adults, single, married, or elderly, having a pet is one of the greatest blessings imaginable because it provides us with a sense of unconditional love. Pets have a way of soothing our edges, providing us with a sense of humor, and brightening our days and nights with a gentle nudge. For every one of us, life is brief; even briefer for our pets. Savor every moment you spend with your beloved pets.
It’s your life. Enjoy the journey. And remember to bring love into everything you do.
Here are some additional resources that you might find helpful:
Shelley Whizin is the founder and CEO of Soul Diving Institute established to study art and science. Soul Diving is a guided conquest into the depths of your own being.