Paws to make time for grief.
It is wonderful to have a pet. Unfortunately, like all living things, they die. Sometimes we need to end their suffering; sometimes they pass away from old age. Loss can be particularly traumatic if your pet dies suddenly in an accident.
The death of any pet – no matter how small – is painful. It is important that you acknowledge your loss– out of respect for yourself and your pet.
Here are 6 recommendations to help heal the hurt:
- Recognize and respect – the loss of a beloved animal companion is significant. Expect to feel sad. Cry as much as you need. Don’t try to rush through your grief. Ignore those who might say to you, “Get over it – it was just a dog/ cat’’. He or she was a much loved member of your family. Grief comes in waves, high and strong at first, and continues over time. Years later a wave of sadness may suddenly wash over you when you least expect it.
- Talk about it – don’t keep your feelings to yourself or feel that you shouldn’t trouble others with your loss. This is a time when friends earn their keep. We all experience pain at different times, for different reasons, and we all deserve support. If your friend has lost a pet, even though you may not understand the depth of her or his sorrow, be empathetic.
- Memorialize – make a small memorial to your pet in the days following his or her passing. Acknowledge the loss and perhaps share your feeling with photos and stories. This will help keep you feel connected to your beloved pet, especially in the painful days that follow the passing.
- Write a letter – thank them for their love and companionship. I particularly recommend this bereavement technique for children. Writing helps children express their sadness in a creative way. It helps to remind children that, in some way, their pets continue to exist as long as they are remembered. You might also ask them to draw pictures of their pet that you can hang in your home or that they can share with friends. When my young child was struggling with the sudden accidental death of our dog, Milo, I even wrote a letter from Milo back to her, telling her about that his experience in doggie heaven and joking that God had said that he needed that he was a bit overweight and he had to go on a diet.
- Rituals – we live in Hong Kong and many of us have the chance to travel widely. As such, we have experienced how cultures other than our own commemorate a significant death. The Chinese have a tradition of burning paper objects to improve the afterlives of the departed. They “send” paper models of iPads, new clothes and even cars so that their ancestors are nice and comfortable. I encourage those grieving the death of a pet to do the same. Simply draw the items your pet loved – you don’t need fancy models. For example, in addition to a picture of a toy we knew Milo liked, we sent him a big juicy paper steak – so that he could avoid the diet suggested in the afterlife! These little rituals help the bereaved stay connected to the departed.
- Give yourself and your family time to grieve. Rushing to replace your beloved companion with another pet will be tempting, and may confuse small children. Teaching children to get over pain with a replacement policy may inadvertently communicate that grief is a bad emotion that we should avoid. When you think you are ready, sit down and discuss getting a new pet with your family to ensure that everyone can deal with another deep emotional commitment.
Losing a pet can be devastating. Nurture yourself and your family during this sensitive time. You have lost a dear friend and an important member of your family. Respect your emotions and honour the love you had for your pet.
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Angela Watkins is a psychologist and counsellor at RED DOOR Counselling in Hong Kong. Her current clinical work focuses on parenting, family life, parenting SEN children, anxiety, OCD, career change, stress management and divorce.