By Janet Velenovsky
National Pet Memorial Day is the 2nd Sunday of each September. This year, that happens to fall on 9/11.
As we reflect on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, most of us are revisiting periods of loss and sorrow in our lives. These mourning periods are valuable in honoring those who have passed, in healing our own psyches, and in reminding us to savor our days. We just don’t know what might happen tomorrow.
Unfortunately, some people believe bereavement at the loss of a pet is somehow less painful or less important than the loss of a person. Some even think grieving the loss of a pet is frivolous or weak. I marvel at the inability of some who cannot empathize with another’s pain. As with the concepts of what each individual finds punishing or rewarding in learning, the definitions and depth of one’s grief belongs to that individual alone.
However, I have learned that psychologists do make a distinction between grief over situations that might be expected or foreseen, and those which are sudden and shocking. This was helpful to me in figuring out why I didn’t feel nearly as devastated at the loss of one of my blood relatives as I did at the loss of a beloved dog to cancer.
For instance, when your grandmother, who has been in poor health for several years succumbs to her ailments and dies in her sleep at age 98, you may well be sad and feel a sense of loss. But if she had a good life and was surrounded by her children and friends near the end of her life, this might be termed “low grief.” The chances you’ll be able to recover well and resume your normal life in a few weeks are good.
The sudden, unpredictable loss of a dear companion due to a violent accident or some stealthy cancer which causes serious damage and spreads throughout the body before you even know about it would be examples of “high grief” – whether that companion is a human, a canine, a feline, or another species. The closeness of the relationship also has a bearing on the type of grief one feels. One spouse may rebound quickly, while the other may find the grief debilitating.
In some respects, losing our companion animals can leave more troubling feelings of doubt and guilt behind than the loss of a person and that guilt can prolong our bereavement. “Did I do enough for my cat?” Or, “Should I have known somehow my dog was ill?”
Forget that exams and blood tests turned up nothing out of the normal range; as our pets’ “moms” and “dads” we hold ourselves accountable for not seeing, sensing, or stopping the disease. This stems from the total dependence most of our companion animals have on us. We control so much of their environment, their diet, their playtimes, and their access to the dangerous world. Therefore, if something unpleasant happens to them, aren’t we responsible?
Of course, the answer is that we cannot control everything, even for ones we love so dearly. And we need to be kind to ourselves in our suffering, remembering we have done the best we can, and our pets would not want us to be so unhappy.
I lost my dog Kaizen so quickly but my grief lingered; luckily I found a group of people who encouraged me to explore my pain, to share it and learn from it, and to use it to help others going through it too: the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (www.aplb.org). If you are suffering through pet loss, or anticipate a loss due to a sick or injured animal, I encourage you to visit their website, check out their free chat rooms, and join others who understand what you are experiencing.
At APLB, I learned a term I value to this day. Disenfranchised grief is sorrow and pain from loss which is not accepted or validated by others. “Oh, it was just a dog.” Or, “Snap out of it! You only lost a cat, not a child.” It is not fair to judge another’s pain or grief. There are better ways to help someone recover than to deny what they are feeling.
Of course, if bereaved pet parents find themselves unable to function, or if these feelings continue on beyond a timeframe they expected, they should solicit professional help. There is no shame in this; there is only relief to be found.
Finally, one of the best ways to come to terms with your loss is to honor your departed pet in ways that are meaningful to you. Here are some of my favorites:
(1) Volunteer and/or donate in your pet’s memory. There are hundreds and hundreds of shelters and rescue organizations who could use your help. Whether you have time to walk a couple of dogs, dangle wand toys for cats, or are able to make some kind of financial donation, think of the other wonderful dogs and cats who will benefit in your pet’s honor.
(2) Perform a random act of kindness for someone. Perhaps muffins for the veterinary staff, running an errand for the lady down the hall who was your pet sitter, or sending a card with your pet’s photo to a lonely soldier abroad. Think of how your pet brought joy to you and pass it along.
(3) Plant a tree, bush, or flowering plant to enjoy. Seeing this living memorial grow can help you remember your pet in a more positive way.