After the awful day when Noreen Nettles had to have her dog Penny euthanized, it was as if the color had drained out of her world. When she tried to tell others about the loss, hardly anyone would acknowledge the significance or intensity of her grief.
"Maybe one or two people said they were sorry," Noreen said, "but nobody else said anything. It really hurt and made me feel alone. In my mind, Penny was my furry child, yet no one cared enough to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ or to say, ‘I’m sorry.’"
Noreen’s dog was as much of her family as a flesh-and-blood person. While 360 million pets live in 69 million American households, a whopping 83 percent of pet lovers call themselves their pet’s mommy or daddy and coo to their companion animals. Today, people are marrying later or staying childless for longer. Seniors are filling their empty nests with animal babies. At the death or loss of a pet, these pet parents long to honor the child that they miss so terribly.
When we did the research for and wrote Rainbows & Bridges: An Animal Companion Memorial Kit to help individuals and families through pet loss, we found certain comments and practices drove grief deep into the hearts of bereaved pet parents. Unexpressed grief and buried emotions resulted in prolonged sadness that often led to a sense of helplessness and depression.
A week after Kathleen McBride’s dog Tyler died, her boss at that time, a young woman in her thirties, found Kathleen teary-eyed, sitting at her desk.
"Why are you still crying?" the boss said. "I thought you would be over that dog by now."
Shocked by the woman’s insensitivity and at a loss for words, Kathleen said, "I couldn’t begin to explain to her the enormity of my loss, so I didn’t even try." Fortunately other co-workers were more understanding, sending Kathleen cards and notes to express their condolences. These helped to console her. "After all," Kathleen said, "a loss is a loss."
Most pet lovers hide their feelings in public and save the tears for home. Given prevailing attitudes in today’s society, that’s probably a good strategy. But if a person cannot bear being at work, it’s best to either take a personal day or bereavement time. Even one day at home, where the grieving person can be honest about sadness, anger or regrets, builds strength to go back into what might feel like a hostile work environment.
Parents of human children have a compounded problem with buried grief as they wonder how much of their emotions to express in front of their youngsters. Often the loss of a pet is a child’s first bewildering experience with death. Parents tend to focus on their children’s needs for understanding, sometimes neglecting or suppressing their own emotions.
Cheri Barton Ross, author of Pet Loss and Children: Establishing a Healthy Foundation (Routledge, 2005) said, "Shared emotions within a family can be very healthy for both the parent and child. Children learn that there are feelings that need to be expressed when a pet we love dies (or runs away or is adopted to another home). However, parents should not use their children as sources of support. If the parent is feeling overwhelmed by feelings of loss, she should seek counseling support to work through the loss."
Sometimes there is a disconnect between what people believe about animals and the afterlife, or animals as eternal souls, and what churches teach as official dogma. The inability to find comfort in a place or with those who usually provide it can result in a crisis of faith. One woman wrote that when she expressed the conviction that she’d be reunited with her pet in heaven, another woman in her congregation called this hope a "heathen belief." Another said that her parish priest was shocked when she said that she wished to bury her dog’s ashes in the coffin with her.
Each person has to come to terms with how to handle the heartfelt desire to be reunited with a beloved pet in the afterlife. Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., is author of Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet and hosts the Pet Loss Support Page at www.pet-loss.net. "As a Christian," she said, "I take comfort from the scripture that assures me that through me, my household will be saved. Do pets go to heaven? Do they have souls? The Bible doesn’t tell us. So the only truly honest answer that anyone can give to this question is ‘I don’t know.’ We must answer based on the understanding of God and heaven that he has placed in our hearts."
Because animals in heaven and animals as souls aren’t make-it-or-break-it teachings of most religious traditions, we advise people not to deprive themselves of the consolation their churches provide, if they can agree to disagree on those beliefs. In some cases, bereaved pet guardians can find within their denomination a minister who has a viewpoint and answers that are more in tune with their own.
If you don’t want to have the poisonous effects of buried grief, consider the following suggestions for self-care after the loss of a pet.
- Protect yourself from insensitive remarks by avoiding people who don’t understandor, if it’s appropriate, by trying to educate them about pet loss.
- Allow children to see that you also mourn and miss the family pet. Discuss theloss and encourage them to write and draw pictures or make a scrapbook of memorablephotos to express how they are feeling.
- Overlook or reconcile yourself to feeling disconnected from your religion onthe subject of animals or start attending religious functions with more sympatheticcongregations and clergy.
- Hold a memorial service with family members and friends who knew and loved yourpet. Ask people to share something special about their relationship with the animal.Scatter the animal’s ashes in a sacred place. Offer your true and honest thoughtsand beliefs about reuniting with and continuing to feel the presence of the animal’s love.
Creating the circumstances for grieving naturally and openly over the loss of a family member, who has provided a wellspring of unconditional love, allows buried grief to surface and to heal. After all, that’s what your pet would want for you.
What readers of "Angel Animals story of the week" believe you should never say to someone who has lost a pet:
"It was only a dog/cat/rabbit/horse…"
Bianca Rothschild wrote about this kind of remark: "A lifetime of devotion and supreme loyalty brushed aside and rudeness of the individual personified."
Debra Walker-Nipp: "Cleo was not just a dog. She was my true soul mate and gave her life to us. True devotion can’t be replaced or found that easily."
"Why don’t you just get another one?"
Kathy Belk: "No way can you ever replace a special animal. Each one is unique. I truly believe God made them that way, as he did us humans."
"Get over it. They are just stupid, dumb animals."
Marla Johnson heard that comment about her deceased rabbit. She wrote, "I couldn’t believe how insensitive of a remark that was because in my opinion animals are very evolved spiritual beings who are here on this planet to help humans become kinder, more loving, and compassionate people."
"You really didn’t need all the health costs and food expenses of those animals."
A reader named Teresa responded to this remark by saying, "If I choose to spend my entire check on my babies, it’s none of your business."
"At least it wasn’t a person. Or, you could have lost a family member instead of an animal."
Jeanne Walker: "My animals are family members. I don’t own them. They are part of my family in the truest sense of the word – nonjudgmental, loving, and forgiving."