Last week I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I decided that it was finally time to euthanize my cat Sola, who was recently diagnosed with bladder cancer. Sola has been in my life for almost 17 years as I adopted him and his sister the first month I started working at the Michigan Humane Society. He was a loyal, friendly, and social cat who enjoyed the company of other cats, dogs, and especially people. In many ways, his personality was more like a golden retriever than a cat.
Sola was the one consistent thing in my adult life. He was with me when I met my husband, when I got engaged, when my grandmother died, when I moved to California, when I got married, when his sister Luna died, and when my son was born. It has been a week since he passed away, and I feel the need to admit to you that I am having a real challenge coping with his loss. The ideas that I share below are helping me come to terms with the reality of the situation, but I believe I still have some time before I fully accept the loss of Sola.
People who have never enjoyed the company of a pet or lost one may not understand grieving over the death of a companion animal. But our feelings toward companion animals are so special that experts have a term for the relationship: the human-companion animal bond. When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Our society does not always offer a grieving pet owner a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment: “It’s only a cat; you can always get another one.” Such a reaction would be heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member, but not everyone sees a companion animal in that same light. Here are some stages that someone grieving over a pet may go through:
How we feel. When a person dies, friends and relatives pay their respects at the family home or funeral parlor. There is a funeral at which sorrow and tears are accepted, even expected. Afterward, during a mourning period, friends and relatives assist and comfort grieving family members until their grief subsides and new routines develop. When an animal dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief. Even the immediate family and close friends may not fully understand the loss. Still, the loss affects our emotions, and all the more so if the animal was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief we feel.
The first stage. Denial. Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when confronted with a companion animal’s terminal condition or death. This rejection seems to be the mind’s buffer against a sharp emotional blow. This stage is especially true for those who experience a sudden, unexpected death. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
The second stage. Bargaining. Many times, faced with impending death, an individual may “bargain” — offering some sacrifice if the loved one is spared. The hope that he or she might recover can bring reactions such as, “If Rover recovers, I’ll never skip his regular walk” or “I promise to go to church every week if Whiskers gets better.” Bargaining is an expression of hope that the bad news is reversible.
The third stage. Anger. Anger can be obvious, as in hostility or aggression. Anger may also turn inward, emerging as guilt. Many veterinarians have heard the classic response, “What happened? I thought you had everything under control, and now you’ve killed my dog!” Such outbursts help relieve immediate frustrations, though often at the expense of someone else. More commonly, animal guardians dwell on the past. The number of “If only … ” regrets is endless: “If only I had taken Kitty to the veterinarian a week ago … ” Whether true or false, such thoughts do little to relieve anger and are not constructive.
The fourth stage. Grief/Depression. This is the stage of true sadness. The animal is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only emptiness remains. It is normal to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful to recognize that other animal guardians have experienced similar feelings and that you are not alone.
The final stage. Resolution. As time passes, the distress dissolves as the pet owner remembers the good times, not the animal’s passing. This is not to say that you won’t hurt anymore, but you will begin to accept the reality of the loss. Remember that to get to this stage may take months or even years.
These stages of grief may not happen in this exact order; many people jump around from stage to stage. If you find you are “stuck” in any of these stages and not moving through your grief, you may want to seek help from a professional guidance counselor.
What you can do about your feelings.
The most important thing you can do is be honest about your feelings. Try talking to others who have experienced the same type of loss. Many find comfort in creating a memory book of their pet with favorite stories, pictures, and toys so that their pet will never be forgotten. One website where many grieving pet owners have found help is www.rainbowsbridge.com. This is an online community of pet guardians who are all grieving the loss of a pet. You can chat live with others, send emails, and there’s a special Monday-night candlelight vigil where grieving pet owners come together to share their emotions. You can also set up a virtual memorial for your pet. (See below for more Internet support groups.)
If you are a friend of someone who has lost a pet.
Many times a grieving pet owner just wants to talk about their pet, so make sure that you are there for them. Send a sympathy card specific to pets, and if possible, make a donation in memory of your friend’s pet to a local animal shelter. Be sure to follow up after a few weeks or months to see how your friend is doing. Don’t assume that after a few weeks your friend will “be over it.”
Given the joy that our pets bring to us, most of us would choose the temporary grief that we feel after a loss over never having our pets in our lives. I miss Sola intensely, but I am eternally grateful that I was able to share almost half of my life with him. Eventually, I know I will be able to accept his absence and think of all the smiles and memories he brought me over the years we shared together.
Pet Loss Internet Support Groups
ASPCA Pet Loss Support
For support dealing with the loss of a pet, including information on meeting the emotional needs of children at the time of a pet’s death, call the Pet Loss Hotline at (877) GRIEF-10.
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Pet bereavement counselors, virtual condolence cards, in memoriam list, bereavement for service dogs, local meetings, and more.
The Rainbows Bridge story; Monday Pet Loss Candle Ceremony; message board, chat room; add pet’s name to list for tributes; poetry and music in memory of pets.
Rainbows Bridge Grief Support Center http://rainbowsbridge.com/Grief_Support_Center/Grief_Support_Home.htm
One-on-one online grief counseling, memorials, Monday Night Candle Ceremony.
Adoptable Pet of the Week
Tika is a beautiful 2-year-old female, spayed shepherd mix. She is full of energy and eager to learn new things. She loves meeting new people and won’t hesitate to roll over for a belly rub. Tika is so full of love and would make a faithful companion to anyone. Come in and visit this beautiful girl today!
For more information, visit the Santa Barbara Humane Society at 5399 Overpass Road, or call (805) 964-4777. Shelter hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. You can also visit www.sbhumanesociety.org.