BY SHELLEY WHIZIN
“Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless he’s owned a dog.
A dog can show you more honest affection with a flick of his tail
than a man can gather through a lifetime of handshakes.”
– Gene Hill
In this article, we explore the unconditional love we share with our pets and why the emptiness we feel with the loss of a pet can be so devastatingly sad. We all have experienced grief in one way or another in our lifetime, and although we know it’s a natural feeling, it seems that the death of a beloved pet seems to hit quite hard. I hope that the suggestions I offer you in this article on how to deal with the loss of a pet will help ease the grieving process.
Beloved Pets Fetch Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is a love that remains constant no matter what conditions are presented. When we have a pet, the love develops and grows through all those special, unique interactions that solidify that human-animal bond that we each share with our beloved pets. Unconditional love from a pet starts with them trusting that there’s consistent care being given for their basic needs. It’s care that’s given with an energy and demeanor of kindness. Their bond with us grows from them sensing that they’re being treated kindly through us giving them gentle affection through our attitude, our speaking words and tone, caressing and petting, and of course, our general comportment towards them. They express their love and bond for us by following us around everywhere we go, their joy at seeing us which we read in their eyes, their wagging tails, little licks, and even jumping. Cats and other animals also have their own way of expressing love as well as joy at seeing us. In general, our pets are sensitive and “intuitive”, enabling them to pick up on our demeanor, our mood, and even when there’s a health issue. They are very protective of us and respond unfailingly to warn us of pending “danger” and thusly defend us by barking.
“Happiness is a warm puppy.”
-Charles M. Schulz
Love has a way of penetrating our hearts in ways that nothing else can. Love goes to the heart and soul of who we are. Love knows no boundaries and falling in love with a pet is no different. For our pet, we become their world, their “furever” family. Years go by and that beloved animal becomes a true animal companion, displaying unconditional love and protection.
Dogs and cats both give us tremendous love and emotional support. We give them affection and whilst it soothes them, it’s also has a calming and relaxing effect on us, even lowering our blood pressure, and cutting down our stress hormones. No wonder they take dogs to nursing homes, finding that the elderly residents feelings shift to a sense of calm, just by petting them.
“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”
At any age, pets bring solace to our lives, a presence, a sense of peace, well-being and contentment. They give us something to care about and nurture. They also 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 deeply attached to these incredible pets, and when your pet dies, you feel devastated. There are no words to describe the depth of that loss.
Those of us who have or have had pets have experienced first-hand the many benefits for 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. They just care about being together. You get to grow together with a human-animal/animal-human bond that you learn to treasure forever. As a child, getting a pet can be one of the most exciting experiences ever, because as a child you get to care about something that actually moves and breathes, other than a stuffed animal, and the pet becomes your animal companion, your friend, your buddy.
“The greatness of a nation and its oral progress
can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Our First Pet Death Experience
As children growing up, we may have received a pet from our parents, with strong instructions 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, some fish food and you gently train your fish to be in that fishbowl before releasing it from their plastic bag environment. 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 death of pets and are supportive by helping you create a small ritual for you to have closure by “bury” the fish in a little box and saying some words of love and “goodbye” once the fish has been buried. This was most likely your first pet death experience. Different people handle death differently, of course. However, the ritual of closure is one of regard, 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.
Time goes by, and your parents may have taken you to a shelter where some pups and kittens are up for adoption. You were ready to have a new pet and beg them to adopt a dog. You WANT that furry friend no matter what!
Pets Make the Greatest Best Friends
It doesn’t matter what pet animal you get, however, whatever pet you have that you love, when they die, it’s crushing and upsetting, and a big part of your world seems like it’s come to an end. The loss of a pet when you’re a child and when you’re an adult leave us with the same kind of pain and devastation in our hearts. It takes quite a bit of time to recover and we find recovery hard and challenging. Every time you eat, you remember giving a little morsel from your plate, and these memories of acts of love can overwhelm for a long time.
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, our friend is gone. Everything alive dies one day. It’s just the way life is designed and knowing this intellectually is quite different from experiencing it and feeling it emotionally. Creating something special in terms of a ritual that’s shared with friends and/or family members helps with achieving closure, helping also ease the deep sadness and feelings felt from the loss of a pet yet bringing a sense of honor, dignity and regard to the difficult experience of such a loss. Whether as children or adults, we create personalized rituals to honor the death of our dearly beloved pet, many times in similar ways as we do with a beloved human being of ours.
“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
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 about the amount of time you grieve after your pet dies, nor is there a right or wrong way in how you express your grief. Your pet’s death is a very personal experience and it’s important to just be aware that you may need some extra support through the grieving process. Grieving the loss of a pet is a huge topic, so much so there are pet bereavement support groups and pet bereavement counselors (sometimes known as pet loss counselors) for grieving pet owners that are certified and trained to help you navigate through the grief.
Two friends of mine lost their dogs in the last couple of years. Olivia Bareham, from Sacred Crossings, had a golden retriever for many years, named Otis. Otis had been very sick and his health was declining rapidly. She asked me to be there with her, along with a few friends when it was time for Otis to be given the final injections that would eliminate his pain and suffering and ease his transition. I had never been with an animal who died before, and 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 I have ever witnessed. There was so much love in the room, you could feel it everywhere. The veterinarian who came just waited patiently, as a death midwife would do, and even though he was there, he didn’t have to inject anything, as she held him in her arms, Oscar gently let go of his last breath on his own. Just having the veterinarian there was comforting to Olivia, and we were moved to tears.
Another friend of mine, Pina De Rosa, lost her dog Wellington, an 80-pound doodle about a year ago. She had him for 9 years, and he was definitely more than just her pet, he was her companion animal, her best friend and buddy, and the spokes-dog for a TEDx Wilmington talk that they gave together about the 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 a 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. She is still recovering from that emotional whiplash. To help her with her grieving process, she contacted several bereavement counselors and as she went through her own healing she started to wonder how many other people are walking around with the same bullet in their heart, so hence, 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 ago, 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, and because of the love she bestowed upon him, he lived another four and a half months. As a grieving pet owner, she has been able experience a healing she didn’t get to have with Wellington, and because she took the bereavement training and became 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. Because he’s a “toddler”, he has also wanted all of Pina’s attention, on the opposite side of the life spectrum, and has been with Handsome this entire time.
As his 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, where Pina held Handsome in her arms, lying beside him, whispering loving words into his ears, as he gently drifted off, after he was given the medicine that enabled him to transition with a sense of peace and grace, that just felt ok. The experience was touching, sad and filled with love and compassion. We all said our goodbyes and wished him well on his eternal journey into the next ethereal adventure. Kathy, a Buddhist friend of Pina’s, brought him through a beautiful ritual, freeing his spirit into the next evolution of his soul.
Afterwards, Kathy and Pina took him to Scott & Teresa Summerville’s, At Garden’s Edge, a pet cremation and aftercare service in Alhambra, CA. Scott and Teresa are both avid animal lovers, pet rescuers and caregivers. They know how difficult it is when a beloved pet passes on and they provide a loving service of unique sensitivity that is almost indescribable. 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, and which is covered in a purple fabric with lit candles placed 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 to be together – until you feel a completeness in your closure with your beloved pet. Having such a unique place that can provide such exquisite and private comfort for your beloved pet is very important. Scott and Teresa are individuals whom you can really on to facilitate and promote honoring your pet with dignity and respect. They provide their clients calming reassurances and peace of mind throughout their difficult time. Their services are for a “Private” cremation of your pet. “Private” means that they cremate one pet at a time, every time. They do a cleansing ritual, carefully placing your pet in a wicker basket in a refrigerated area, and prepare your pet’s body with great care, using lavender sprays, and then cremating your pet in the blanket with which you brought your pet.
I only briefly had a dog when I was a child, however, coming more from my perspective as a human end of life educator, I saw Pina take the private pain and guilt she felt because she couldn’t be with Wellington when he passed, she poured a great deal of love into Handsome ensuring his end would be honored more meaningfully. She was adamant that Handsome would have a passing with love and regard that he could feel. I believe her ability to give him an absolutely exquisite end of life care, allowed Handsome to somehow “know” how much he mattered. He was loved in life, and he somehow understood that this person, Pina, also honored his life, gave him dignity and held him in regard in his last days. Without knowing he knew. He also knew – without a doubt, that he was loved beyond measure. What else is there in life that is more important?
As I mentioned earlier, you can create your own “goodbye” ritual for your pet in the manner that means something special to you. Euthanasia is believed by many to alleviate any prolonged suffering for the animal when there is nothing more than can be done medically. The time and place for euthanasia to take place can be created into a ritual of prayer, candle lighting, and even ensue with a burial with 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, and before burying your pet in your own yard, check with your city to make sure you follow the laws and regulations about pets being buried on your property. Laying a stone on top with the dates etched is also done by some. These flexible options allow for the creation of a ceremony that is intimate and meaningful – it’s whatever you create it to be and want it to be.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
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 of your beloved pet. You may find yourself feeling sad and empty, not even wanting to pick up their toys, their bowl, their bed, or anything that belonged to them. Reality sets in and you realize the depth of speechless understanding you experienced with each other, the unconditional love you shared for each other, and how much care and protection you gave to each other. You grieve – time and support will help, but it will never release the memory of profound love. Whenever you feel that sadness from missing them, it is the depth of the love you feel. When you allow it to be so, you will feel that understanding.
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 happens because you loved. That’s part of the human experience. Loving deeply is the greatest gift of all, and because you are able to 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 really the essence of healing.
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 lifetime 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 don’t want anyone or anything to suffer or watch our pets suffer. We want the best for them and when an animal is suffering, euthanasia may be the kindest gesture we could give them, even though it is the final act.
Dr. Alice Villalobos, one of the most premier veterinarian 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. It helps to make the call when the emotional 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. It is also important to trust your own instincts and sense of your pet since you know him/her the best. Dr. Wallace Sife, psychologist and founder of the APLB, is another expert on the subject of grieving a pet. He wrote a guide to the grieving process, 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 to “write a two-part letter to ease the grieving process. 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, what they provided you and you them. 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 one of the most healing, soothing and bonding experiences because you become aware that the love was not lost, it has only changed form.”
Focusing on the goodness that your pet’s life has meant to you and how you can memorialize them, is an active way of keeping their legacy alive. Just living in your heart is sometimes not enough. Chat rooms, like Pet Loss Chat at RainbowsBridge.com or The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement Chat Room, are a couple of places where people go and talk about and get the support they need about the pets they have lost. It often helps to know others are going through a similar experience. As time goes on, the possibility opens that life with another pet can become your healing to nurture and love again.
Losing someone we love is never easy because we love them. Losing a pet is no different. We never forget our pets for as long as we live, even if we got that pet as a child. They leave an indelible mark on our hearts that we will remember forever and when they die, grieving is a healing process that helps soothe and mend our broken hearts. Grieving has no specific time limit and is experienced by everyone differently. Having a pet is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves because we experience a sense of unconditional love, whether we are children, teenagers, adults, single, married or elderly. Pets have a way of softening our edges, inspiring our sense of humor and easing our days and nights with a gentle nudge. Life is short for us all, and even shorter for our pets. Savor all the moments you share with your beloved pets.
It’s your life. Enjoy the journey. And remember to bring love into everything you do.