The unconditional love of a pet, whether it’s a dog, cat, horse, rabbit, hedgehog, bird, a little rat or hamster, captures our hearts. Pets are family members and loving and trusting them brings peace and joy into our lives. The human-animal connection is a powerful bond and dynamic relationship.
Sadly, there comes a time when our pets have to say goodbye, and that triggers intense emotions. For many, the grief following the loss of a pet is comparable to the intensity of grief following the loss of a human, sometimes even harder.
“Grief is shaped by the bond you had with your beloved pet, and the trauma associated with the loss of them,” according to Patricia Lee Rode, a certified pet loss and bereavement counselor in Rockland. “The connection between ourselves and our beloved pets is profound, and when we lose this companionship, it can be devastating.”
After the sudden passing away of her German Shepherd Sonny eight years ago, she decided she wanted to help others process the loss of a beloved pet to honor him.
“When I lost Sonny, it was so hard, and I felt no one understood how devastating it was for me,” she said. “My goal might be to help people understand their grief and work through any trauma association with it. The long-range goal may be to ‘grieve fully’ so they can ‘live fully’ again.”
Rode said the stages of grief are shock, anger, guilt, sadness/acceptance and resolution (coming to peace with what has happened).
“People do not go through these stages in a linear way, but often experience many of these feelings simultaneously,” she said.
Continue to connect with your pet. You can still talk to them even though they are not in their physical bodies any longer.
Create a memorial in your space, and perhaps include there a candle and some photographs. Establish a ritual – light the candle, and honor your beloved pet. Nights are usually the hardest; some people sleep with the picture of their beloved pet for a while.
Get a tattoo or jewelry with your pet’s name on it. Have some of their fur or ashes put into a locket and wear it. Plant or get a plant in their name might symbolize rebirth in honor of them.
Say their name. So many people that call Rode feel alone if they can’t talk about their pet. She encourages clients to talk about them.
Grief does not define you, even though it may feel like it does, she said. Your heart is still beating and you still have a pulse, even though you may feel like a part of you died with your beloved pet. A goal might be to remember them with more love than pain, eventually.
Remember to treat yourself like you would your best friend, gently.
Don’t compare your grief to others. Grief is something we get to do our way. It’s as individual as our fingerprints.
Think of baby steps. Focus on the body, mind and spirit.
Not everyone is familiar with or understands the grief process, and knows how to be supportive of someone who has lost a beloved pet.
“It helps to surround yourself with community that cares,” said Rode. “In general, our society is grief illiterate, and often people don’t know what to say.”
A community can include a friend or family member who knew your beloved pet, your cat or dog walker/sitter, your farrier, a neighbor, and even the person you get coffee from every morning.
“You’d be surprised how open people are to talk about their own loss of a beloved pet, when we are vulnerable and talk about our own loss of our pet,” she said.
And there is no “normal” timeframe for grieving.
Rode said that people have called her who have lost their pet years prior but never had anyone to help them process the associated grief.
“It isn’t easy, but over time we can learn to come to peace with our loss and love again,” she said. “If we open our hearts to love in life, we open ourselves to loss. In a way, even at the end of your beloved pet’s life, you are still on a journey with them, because you’re still thinking of them, you’re still loving them, you’re still in relationship with them because love never dies."
Patricia Lee Rode, M.A., an experienced grief counselor, offers individual pet loss and bereavement sessions and support groups via zoom, by phone or in person; pet-loss-counseling.com or email@example.com She also leads pet loss support groups, as scheduled, for the Pope Memorial Humane Society in Thomaston. Pet Loss Support groups are listed at popehumane.org