If you have ever lost a pet, you understand just how incredibly painful it can be. The pain of losing a pet can sometimes be just as intense as losing a family member or friend. After all our pets are like family, they give us unconditional love and joy. They treat us like we are the most important person in the world, so it's understandable the heart ache we feel when they die.
Almost one year ago, we lost our beloved golden retriever, Harper to cancer. It all happened so fast. We got Harper not long after my husband and I were married. A few years later I gave birth to our twins. Harper was a great companion as my belly grew which some days required me to spend more time on the couch than I preferred He was a great running buddy and loved the beach. After our twins were born, he was an amazing big brother. Harper would run to their cribs when they cried. We were excited to see our babies grow up with him and always had the vision that Harper would be there to celebrate each milestone and birthday.
Last summer, all of that changed. Harper started acting sick one evening and when we took him to the Vet the next morning, we heard the news that shattered our hearts. The doctor suggested we take him home, spend some time saying good bye, and return in a day or two to have him euthanized. The doctor said his cancer was aggressive and he would not live very long. She assured us that it was the right decision, because it would prevent him from suffering anymore pain. While our hearts were aching, our minds were racing. How could we say goodbye to our best friend? How would we tell our 3 year old twins who adored him, who ran to him each day when they got home, to play with him, combed his hair and sometimes pretended to read to him? How would we manage our own grief and help them understand and process theirs?
They say that animals teach us about life and death, because they live life to the fullest to the very end. Harper did just that. I think he did that for our sake. We decided to spend his last day on the beach, it was his favorite place with his favorite people. We broke the news to our twins and allowed them to see our tears and pain so that they knew it was okay to feel sad and feel loss. We loved on Harper the whole day and asked a family friend to take one last family photo. The next day we said our goodbyes to our sweet Harper. Although he is not with us physically, he will forever live in our hearts. Our hearts still ache for him, but we can also remember how much he loved us and all the lessons he taught us. Lessons about life and about saying goodbye when you just want to hold on forever.
As a therapist, I am surprised when I ask my clients about past history of loss, and they ask if the loss of a pet counts. They then go on to describe the pain and grief from their loss, and how they are still reminded of it when experiencing other losses. The loss of a pet, can be incredibly difficult. It is important to allow yourself the time and space to grieve. To understand that grief is different for everyone, and everyone grieves in their own individual way.
Sometimes the grief from losing a pet can become complicated grief due to the fact that an individual may not be validated in their grief. They may be expected to "just get over it, or even told to just get another pet and move on."
If you have experienced the loss of losing a pet, it is important that you give yourself the space to grieve. Talk about your feelings and loss with someone that can understand your pain. Memorialize your pet, use good self care and realize that you have experienced a significant loss.
Helping your children deal with the death of a pet is important too. Children may not fully understand that their pet is gone and will not return. They may look for their pet and ask the same questions, expecting them to return. Help them understand by sticking to the facts in a language they can understand, encourage them to ask questions, talk about their feelings, draw pictures, have a memorial for them to say good bye. Don't be afraid for them to see your sadness. It maybe your child's first experience with death. Give each other lots of love and support, because that is exactly what your pet would want for you and your family.
If you are having a difficult time dealing with the loss of a pet, contacting a therapist or joining a grief group is a great way to find support and work through your grief. Honor your pet by taking care of yourself.
Ashley T Trotter, LPCA
Reclaim Counseling and Wellness, PC