The loss of a pet can cause grieving as intense as the loss of a human. Pets are beloved companions.
I met Spirit a little over 10 years ago when I was picking up something from my vet. This four-month-old blind puppy had just been surrendered to my vet clinic. It truly was love at first site. Though it took several months to get him healthy, he eventually joined the pack in my home.
We knew he would have health challenges. The first being the glaucoma we couldn’t get under control, which led to his eyes being removed. Ricky, my Golden Retriever, took him under his wing and started training him to be a pet first aid demo dog. However, Spirit’s first trade show turned out to be Ricky’s last show as he was diagnosed directly after with a heart tumor and was gone shortly following the diagnosis.
Spirit was a clown and loved working the crowd at trade shows. Though even before COVID, Spirit started slowing down and travel didn’t hold any appeal for him anymore. He embraced retirement. He loved sleeping with his head on the cool tile floor while his hips were in front of the roaring fire. There wasn’t anyone he didn’t like and he is immortalized in many photos taken at trade shows. He was more than a beloved pet; he was my trade show buddy.
They don’t even have to be our personal pets, many of us love the pets we groom as much as our own. Family can encompass the pets we serve. And it doesn’t matter how much time you think you have to prepare, the bottom line is, they are here one day and gone the next.
From that moment, the five stages of grief are set in motion:
1. Denial. “This is not happening. This is really NOT happening.”
2. Anger. “This is not fair. I take good care of my pets.”
3. Bargaining. “I can fix this. I doubted myself the entire ride over to the vet.”
4. Depression. “This is not a mistake. I cannot fix this. I’ve lost him.”
5. Acceptance. “There is nothing I can do but work through my grief.”
I cycled through the first four within 15 minutes and went back and did it again many times since. Every time I think I’m at acceptance, one of the first four rears its ugly head.
While Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying, many grief counselors add two more:
6. Shock. You feel nothing but disbelief. It may be like a full-body numbness.
7. Guilt. Somehow it is your fault. “Why did I not see the signs earlier? Maybe if I had, I could have saved him.”
Grief can also manifest in many ways:
1. Physically. This includes crying, shock, lump in throat, lack of energy, disturbing dreams, insomnia, lack of hunger or overeating, body aches, dizziness, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. I ended up in the ER thinking I was having a heart attack. Do not quickly disregard the last two as just grief as they are also indications of a heart attack.
2. Emotionally. There may be confusion, preoccupation with loss, hallucinations, sadness, resentment, guilt and anxiety.
3. Socially. A person may either withdraw from or become too dependent on their friends. In addition, they may distract themselves with extra work.
4. Spiritually. It may weaken or strengthen spiritual beliefs or move them towards a radically different belief system.
Everyone works through the stages in their own time. However, there are instances in which someone seems trapped and cannot work through their grief. Here are some warning signs to look for:
1. Thoughts of suicide. While grieving, it is normal to have FLEETING thoughts of suicide. But if these thoughts persist, tell someone.
2. Panic attacks. They come on suddenly with no discernible pattern.
3. Depression. Depression and grief are different conditions. Grief does mimic some symptoms of clinical depression, but while grief can run its course without intervention, depression cannot. Sigmund Freud summed it up as, “In grief, the world looks poor and empty. In depression, the person feels poor and empty.”
The healing process can be hindered by such factors as the circumstances surrounding the death, no previous experience with a loss, insensitive comments or multiple losses. As a groomer, I regard many of my clients as extended family. I will grieve alongside them. A support system is critical in order for grief to run its course. Some of those support networks include:
1. Supportive family and friends. Avoid those that minimize your feelings towards your loss because “it’s just a pet.”
2. Grief counselors. There are many that specialize in pet bereavement.
3. Animal communicators. Exercise caution because there are many that will prey on your vulnerability. I am fortunate to have the “real deal” as a good friend.
4. Online support. Online resources are valuable, especially if your in-person support is not available. Many online organizations provide free or low-cost grief counseling, as well as assistance in locating local in-person counselors. In addition, some offer virtual candle lightings and chat rooms with other people experiencing a loss. Most of these organizations support their websites with online shops selling personalized memorabilia. A listing of current online resources can be found at: https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/pet-loss-and-grief-resources
There are also ways that you can help a friend or client that has lost a pet. Here are some ideas to provide support:
1. Listen to them. Let them talk. You do not have to say anything. It allows them to start moving through the stages.
2. Send a card. There were many cards I read over and over. It was particularly helpful when I could not bring myself to talk to somebody.
3. Send a copy of the Rainbow Bridge poem. Many of the online organizations will send a personalized copy to their home.
4. Make a donation in their pet’s name. My vet made a donation to their emergency fund to help clients with financial veterinary help.
5. Send or give a personalized gift. I give a rose quartz heart to my clients. I received a stone with a silver heart from a dear friend that will be part of Spirit’s memorial garden. You can order personalized gifts and cards through several online retailers.
6. Pay attention to the warning signs of suicide. It may save their life.
I am very lucky that I have a wonderful support network of friends and family. The loss of a pet can cause grieving as intense as the loss of a human. Do not discount feelings as “it’s just a pet.” Pets are beloved companions. ✂️