FINDING THE PET HELP YOU NEED
Allow For Individual Differences In Grieving
The way we grieve is as individual as we are, and failure to understand and accept our different ways can lead to hurt feelings and conflict among family members. In general, men grieve differently from women and children grieve differently from adults. If there are other pets in the household, they may be grieving too. Yet everyone’s task is the same: to come to terms with the loss.
Other pets in the household may not understand what has happened to their companion, but they almost certainly will sense that something’s wrong. Pets who’ve grown up together can be just as attached to each other as we are to them. The surviving pet will exhibit behaviors that are unique to that individual, ranging from indifferent to extreme. The pet may pace or anxiously search each room of your home; refuse to eat or drink; act listless and curl up in a corner; whimper or howl. A pet who was submissive and aloof before may become affectionate cuddly, whereas another who was loving and attentive may now act hostile and rejecting. Hard as it may be, try offering the surviving pet some extra attention affection, for you are not the only one experiencing the pain of loss. At first, it may help to leave home with your television radio or stereo playing softly in the background — and try not to leave the pet alone for long periods of time. Try to make a fuss over the pet when you do come home, and spend some extra time playing, walking or running together. Always remember that you both are grieving and you both will adjust in time.
Look First To Those Around You
The more support and understanding you have around you, the better you will cope with your grief and the you will come to terms with your loss. Not everyone will be sensitive to your needs, especially if they’ve never loved and lost a very special pet, and if they don’t understand the function and importance of grieving. You may encounter relatives, friends or co-workers who unintentionally minimize your loss or, not wanting to see you hurt, discourage you from expressing your grief.
Many grieving people make the mistake of holding their feelings in, giving others the impression that they don’t want to talk about their loss. Sometimes we need to take the lead in giving those around us permission to talk about our dead pet! By reminiscing and talking openly about how much your pet meant to you, you’re letting others know they don’t need to protect you by acting as if nothing’s happened. If there are youngsters in your life, know that verbalizing, feeling and showing your pain in front of children teaches them that grieving for a lost loved one is acceptable and appropriate.
Explore Resources In Your Community
As public awareness of pet loss spreads, so does the availability of help for bereaved pet owners in the community. for example, the companion animal association of Arizona offers free of charge its pet grief support service (602-995- 5885), which provides a 24 hour-a-day telephone helpline; support group meetings; information, literature and reading lists on pet loss; and referrals to appropriate resources. (Although there is no charge for this service, be aware that long distance calls will be returned collect.) The service is operated entirely by trained volunteers who themselves have suffered the loss of a pet. On going assistance is provided by a certified mental health professional who specializes in pet loss and bereavement, and by a veterinarian affiliated with the Arizona veterinary medical association.
Ask a pet crematory or cemetery representative, your local humane society, your veterinarian or your pet grooming specialist if they know of any pet loss services in your community or even if they know of any recently bereaved clients who may be willing to talk with you. Visit your public library, local book- store or pet supply store and ask for information and literature on pet loss and bereavement. Look for pet loss services advertised in your yellow pages or local newspaper, or posted on bulletin boards in your grocery store, library, church or school.
If you have a computer and access to the internet, there are all sorts of places to go that offer information and support to people who are grieving the loss of a cherished pet. While “surfing the net” is not for everyone, it’s clear that there are many, many people across the country that have found their computers helpful in coping with the painful emotions associated with losing a special pet, and through this medium they want to help others as well. (See the appendix at the end of this book for further information.) Telephone help-lines are springing up every where, some operating 24 hours a day, staffed by compassionate, understanding listeners who have loved and lost their own dear pets and are ready to help others cope with losing theirs.
Support groups are not to be confused with group therapy. Their purpose is to lend support to those who have lost or are anticipating the loss of a companion animal. They are not about changing your values, your personality or the way you think about things. A well-run support group offers a safe, structured environment in which you can learn about the grieving process, express and work through your feelings of loss, and recognize that your painful experiences are shared by others in the group.
Self-help support groups (facilitated by volunteers who themselves have lost a pet, worked through their grief and are now committed to helping others move through the grief process) can be very effective. Ideally, however, the facilitators will be assisted by a mental health professional and a veterinarian, both of whom have experienced their own pet loss. The mental health professional has a strong back- ground and experience in grief education and therapy; understands group dynamics and group process; can provide structure and “ground rules” for the group; and knows how to address the more complicated issues of loss that may come up (anger or thoughts of suicide, for example). the veterinarian’s contribution is invaluable in helping grieving owners’ deal with their anger and their guilt. Owners become better consumers of veterinary care when they’re encouraged by a veterinarian in a support group to return to their own vet to get answers to whatever questions may be lingering about their pet’s illness or cause of death. Grieving owners need to know that they did all they could for their dear pets, and only a veterinarian has the professional medical expertise to offer that level of reassurance. Not all pet loss support groups offer the regular assistance of a pet bereavement counselor and a veterinarian, and you may wish to ask about this as you investigate pet grief support resources in your community.
Pet bereavement counselors are counselors or therapists who specialize in helping people who are anticipating or coping with the loss of a beloved companion animal. They have education and training not only in loss and bereavement in general, but in pet loss and bereavement in particular. They understand attachment and loss as it pertains to the human-animal bond, and their focus is on helping to heal the pain that’s felt when that bond is broken. Therapists without this understanding may misinterpret the strength of your attachment to your companion animal and the depth of your grief over its death.
Organizations such as the companion animal association of Arizona and the delta society maintain directories of individuals and organizations specializing in pet loss throughout the country, and update them yearly. Listings are also posted regularly on the internet.
PLANNING FOR THE DEATH OF YOUR PET:
Why It Is Wise To Plan Ahead
As much as we don’t like to think about it, death and loss are natural parts of living. Sooner or later our cherished pets will grow old, become seriously ill or sustain an injury that can’t be fixed. Because the life spans of most domestic animals are naturally shorter than our own, it is quite likely that at some point each of us will experience the death of a pet, accepting that reality gives us a great deal of control over how we’ll handle the situation when it arises, because we can choose to plan ahead for it. We don’t have to wait until we’re overwhelmed with grief to think about the practical aspects of pet death and body care, and how we could best preserve and honor our pet’s memory thereafter.
Whenever an animal dies, someone must decide what to do with its remains. Although the responsibility for that decision rests with the pet’s owner, oftentimes it is left to the veterinarian to make such arrangements. a distraught owner struggling to cope with the trauma of loss is not in the best position to ask intelligent questions and make an informed, well thought out choice about body care. Although ethically obligated to answer all your questions, your veterinarian may not have the training, facilities or time to provide sensitive after-death pet care. And when the time comes, if you don’t already know what questions to ask or what your preferences are, your pet’s body may not be disposed of in a manner that’s acceptable to you.
Using this information as a guide, we encourage you to think through what you want to do with your pet’s remains while your pet is still young and healthy, before illness, injury or old age strikes.
Even if your pet’s death is sudden and unexpected, be aware that you still can arrange to have your pet’s body held in a refrigerated room or a freezer for a reasonable period of time, until you’re better able to think clearly and decide what to do. Ask whether your veterinarian provides this service, or can refer you to someone who does.
We suggest that you consider your preferences for body care thoughtfully and carefully. Options include disposal, cremation and burial. The information listed describes these options in detail, including advantages and disadvantages of each. We urge you to investigate these options in advance, so that you understand the methods and costs involved. It will give you peace of mind to know that the choices you’ve made are informed ones — not ones made in haste and when your mind is clouded with grief. Avoiding these decisions or leaving them to somebody else when the time comes only adds to your pain and prolongs your grief. Taking responsibility for the situation lets you prepare yourself for your loss long before your pet dies. Ask yourself how you want to feel when you look back upon the arrangements you’ve made. What treasured memories can you make now that will later give you comfort and peace? Even if you know your pet’s death is imminent, you can make the remainder of your time together very special. Talk with fellow animal lovers or specialists in pet bereavement, who understand the bond you have with your pet and can help you decide what to do. Embrace the short time you have left with your pet by spending quality time together. Indulge in your favorite activities. Take lots of pictures — and as one pet owner said to us, “when you think you’ve taken enough, take some more!” take snapshots, videos, even a professional portrait like. Take a clipping of your pet’s fur. Preserve a paw print. Save a feather. Find and read some of the excellent books written for grieving pet owners.
Sorting Out Your Own Values And Beliefs
Facing a major loss usually causes us to confront and rethink our basic beliefs about god, religion, death and the afterlife. While some of us turn to god as a source of strength at the time of a beloved animal’s serious illness or death, others question the religious faith we grew up with. Some of us may have had no religious upbringing at all, yet still feel abandoned by god or angry with god for letting our pets get sick and die. Not all people respond to loss in the same way, and not all people share the same cultural, religious or spiritual beliefs about death, body care and the afterlife. We all have our own viewpoints on these matters.
Many of us wonder where our pets “go” when they die, whether our pets have souls, or whether we will reunite with our animals in an afterlife. Much has been written by clergy, and others, on the subject of animals having souls, and whether or not animals go to heaven. Although we cannot resolve this issue for you, we do believe that, like any other tool, religion can be used or abused. Whether your own faith will be a help, or a hindrance, to you depends on what you believe and how you practice your beliefs. After all, religion can be used in healthy, appropriate ways, or it can be abused in unhealthy, inappropriate ways.
As you think about the care of your pet’s body after death and consider all the options available to you, keep in mind that whatever you decide to do with your pet is the right decision, so long as you feel comfortable with it.
How do you “get comfortable” with this important decision? First, try not to rush into anything (or allow yourself to be rushed into a decision by someone else, no matter how good their intentions.) Otherwise you may do something you’ll come to regret later. You are the one who must live with the consequences of your decisions. Approach matters when you’re calm, and feeling in control of your emotions. Consider your current and future circumstances, including finances and lifestyle. And examine your own beliefs, so that whatever you decide will be consistent with your value system.
Many of us haven’t even thought through what we believe about our own death, let alone that of our companion animals! It’s difficult to confront and resolve our own feelings about death, dying, loss and grief. Yet getting in touch with these feelings and clarifying our beliefs will shape how we’ll decide to care for our pets after death, as well as how we’ll feel about our decisions later.
If you believe that animals have spirits or souls, what happens to your pet’s body after death may not be as important to you as the quality of life you gave your animal before-hand. You may even think that resources set aside for after-death body care would be better spent on animals already living and in need of loving care.
On the other hand, you may believe that your pet’s body should be treated with the same dignity and respect accorded any other departed family member, and to do anything less would dishonor your pet’s memory.
If your pet is very large, such as a llama or a horse, the difficulty and cost of burial or cremation may be prohibitive, and those harsh realities must be considered also. (One alternative is to cremate or bury only a portion of your animal’s body. You may wish to keep the wool from your llama — or save the horseshoes and clip some of the hairs from your horse’s mane or tail.)
MEMORIALIZING YOUR PET
Honor Your Pet’s Memory In Whatever Way You Find Meaningful
Elaborate funeral arrangements and lasting memorials have been used to honor beloved departed pets for thousands of years. Death ceremonies and rituals play an important part in meeting our social and emotional needs, helping us support one another as we come to terms with the reality of our loss.
To memorialize a pet is to acknowledge and honor the important role your pet played in your life. It helps bring meaning to your loss and draw closure on your grief. As you think about paying tribute to your pet, feel free to summon up your memories — they’ll comfort you and help you keep your pet’s love and presence in your heart. Think of what was special about your pet. Reminisce with family members or others who knew your pet. Look over old snapshots. Talk about the funny or silly (or annoying!) habits your pet had. Such reflections will help you plan your own unique ceremony of remembrance, and will help you express and work through your grief as well.
Make a special place in your home, yard or workplace that acknowledges and honors your pet’s life — a place where you can go (or be) and remember your lost friend. Don’t be afraid to be creative. The death of your pet is a natural event and an occasion for the honest expression of your feelings and your values. You can honor your pet’s memory in whatever way you find meaningful.
List Of Ideas To Memorializing Your Pet
What follows is a list of ideas for memorializing a pet, gleaned from the hundreds of grieving pet owners we’ve worked with over the years. The ideas are as unique and as varied as the people who invented them. Think of ways you can adapt them and make them your own.
Have a funeral or memorial service for your pet. Involve the whole family in the planning. Make it as simple or as elaborate as you like and invite whomever you choose, as long as it meets your need to express and share your sorrow, pay tribute to your dead pet and support one another as you say goodbye.
If you’re a writer, write — it could be an article, an anecdote, a story, a poem, a song, a letter, an obituary or a eulogy for your pet. If you don’t want to write for someone else, keep a private journal and write about your feelings as you journey through your grief.
Write a farewell letter to your pet as a way of saying an in-depth, thorough good-bye. Say what you are feeling, what you will miss most, what you will always remember with fondness. Say what the relationship gave you and tell how your life will be influenced by having known and loved that pet.
Share anecdotes and favorite stories about the pet who passed. Sometimes others need permission to talk about your dead pet. Let them know you would rather keep the memory of your beloved pet alive than pre tend that nothing has changed.
Decorate a candle and light it in memory of your cherished pet.
Purchase a book — perhaps a children’s book — on coping with the loss of a pet, and donate it to your local library or school. Ask the librarian to place a label inside the front cover inscribed “in memory of (your pet’s name).”
If your pet was a champion, decorate a tree or wreath with all your pet’s ribbons or awards, or make a memorial shadow box or scrapbook.
Save something that belonged to your pet (collar, tags, food and water dishes; bed or blanket; toys; a clipping of fur or baby teeth; a feather; a horseshoe, tail and mane hairs from your horse; the wool from your llama.)
Carry a feather, a clipping of fur or a portion of your pet’s cremains with you in a tiny container or locket.
Collect all the snapshots of your pet in a memory box, an album or a collage.
Frame a favorite picture of your pet and display it in a special place. Give a copy as a gift to another grieving family member.
Encourage grieving children to draw pictures or write stories inspired by their memories of their lost pet.
Have a professional portrait of your pet painted or drawn by an artist from your favorite photograph.
Have a favorite picture of your pet imprinted on a watch, mug, stein, t-shirt or sweatshirt.
Buy a statue or a stuffed animal that re minds you of your pet, and put your pet’s collar around its neck.
If you buried your pet in a cemetery or in a yard you must leave behind because of a move, take a picture of the gravesite and keep that in a special place you can visit instead.
Plant a tree, bush, shrub, garden or flowerbed as a permanent growing memorial to your pet. Mark the site with a memorial plaque, marker or statue.
If you’ve saved combings or fur clippings from your pet, have them cleaned, spun into yarn, and made into an afghan, garment or rug.
If you have your pet’s cremains, scatter or bury them in your pet’s favorite outdoor place, or put them in a potted plant that you can take with you should you move.
Keep your pet’s cremains in a box or an urn that you can display in a special place of honor in your home or office.
Inscribe a plaque or nameplate with your pet’s name, years of birth and death, and whatever else you choose to write in tribute. Put the plaque on a framed photograph or wooden memory box, hang it on the wall, attach it to a garden bench or other piece of furniture, or display it near your pet’s grave.
Participate in the Monday candle ceremony, a healing ritual begun on the internet (www.mondaycandleceremony.com) that, with a simple lighting of candles at the same time all across the country (10 p.m. eastern; 9 p.m. central; 8 p.m. mountain; 7 p.m. pacific) brings grieving pet owners together in love and in spirit.
Observe national pet memorial day on the second Sunday in September.
View our support poetry in tough times.